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Rowland S Howard

Despite a resume that reads like a history of Australian underground rock, a resurgent Rowland S. Howard tells TREVOR BLOCK he’d gladly set a match to the past. Live photos by ROBERT CARBONE.

Walking into a South Melbourne record company office to meet Rowland S(tuart) Howard is an odd experience, made even stranger by a sign on the upstairs boardroom reading, “Please be quite (sic)”, in big capital letters. It’s an intern’s boo-boo apparently, but makes the sight of Howard sitting at the end of a long polished wood table surrounded by industry memorabilia less jarring.

Framed against the fluorescent colours of a signed poster for the Sound Relief benefit concert, Howard looks as calm and dapper as ever in his usual dark suit jacket. There are magazines and books stacked neatly within easy reach, to see him through any dead patches in a long day of press interviews. Coffee is brought and the doors swing shut with a muted thud.

We start by talking about his involvement in the recent We’re Livin’ On Dog Food documentary, a companion to the DVD release of Richard Lowenstein’s 1986 classic Dogs In Space, where Howard is a striking and articulate presence, in both past and present.

“I don’t actually know where Richard (Lowenstein) got that old footage of Ollie [Olsen] and I from,” he admits, “but I guess the reason there seems to be a lot of me in there is that he thought I said pertinent things, or possibly amusing things. I was really surprised by the amount of backstabbing that went on in the documentary when I saw the finished product.”

I thought some of it was kind of subtle.
Really? Well, the Primitive Calculators weren’t terribly subtle, and I wasn’t terribly subtle about them. If I’d known the final version of the film was going to be like that, I would have let loose a bit more, put the boot in.

You didn’t have a great deal to do with Dogs In Space, apart from one of your songs being sung in it. Does it feel odd to have become associated with it now?
No, not really. The documentary is a film about a thing that I was a part of, no matter how peripherally. Or maybe those people were on the periphery of a scene that I was part of? I think that it became weaker when it concentrated more on The Ears, rather than being about the scene in general. And there were some people in there, like Alannah Hill, who I don’t think had any business being included. She didn’t even arrive in Melbourne until 1980 or so.

There has been some talk, on the back of Dog Food, and The Ears reunion show, that Wirlywirld should come out of retirement.
That’s not going to happen, there’s no way. Ollie’s exceedingly entrenched in his world of techno these days.

Fair enough. Looking at Pop Crimes now, after a big introductory background spiel, the press release goes on to say, “It’s a history Rowland would gleefully put a match to.” Is that really the case?
Hmm, yeah. I wasn’t quite sure about that either. I mean, some of the stuff – most of the stuff – that I’ve done, I’m really proud of. But I don’t like the fact that so many of the interviews I do dwell so much on the past. It’s frustrating, I get interviewed all the time by people who haven’t heard anything that I’ve done since the Birthday Party or whatever.

“No longer do I look out from the stage and just see a bunch of ageing ex-junkies.”

How did you go about assembling the band for the album? I’m guessing you knew JP Shilo through producing his band The Hungry Ghosts.
Yes, I’ve known John for a while. Originally I was going to get Brian Hooper to play bass again, but he was over in Europe, doing a tour of his own. I’d always intended to have John on the album, just as somebody who always has something interesting to contribute. He approaches things from a less than obvious point of view. He suggested that he could play bass, and it seemed like an interesting idea, so we went with that. And Mick, I just think he’s a great drummer. He’s one of the few drummers I can think of who plays his drums like they’re a musical instrument, and really thinks about what’s the best thing for the song, rather than how he can just make his part encroach in it more.

And it was just the three of you during recording?
Yes, it was just us, just guitar bass and drums, with John also adding some organ and violin.

The sound and feel of the album is very distilled, very concentrated. And the first few lines of ‘Pop Crimes’ and ‘Golden Age Of Bloodshed’ are very dense lyrically as well.
Well, with those two songs in particular, I was trying to write a different kind of song than I normally would. As opposed to just writing about things that I’ve directly experienced, I was writing from a more global point of view, about the world that we live in now and that apocalyptic kind of feel to things that are around. I tried to get that across in those songs, and I was really happy with both of them.

Everything on the album is written in the first person, which makes them very direct.
Yes, I’m not somebody who writes about characters, or who tries to distance myself from the topic of the song by interjecting somebody between myself and the song’s lyrics or message.

Is it a bit of a balancing act, between those ideas and the pop feel of something like ‘(I Know A Girl Called) Jonny’, which has an almost girl-group feel to parts of it?
Yeah, it’s really just … I mean, I always try and have a element of pop to things, running through things, because I think that great pop music can be really fantastic. And for ‘Girl Called Jonny’ especially, I thought it would be great to do a song with Jonnine [Standish, from HTRK], because she’s got a very similar aesthetic to mine, and a similar sense of mischief. We both like to subvert the form of the music.

I’ve seen people at live shows be puzzled by you doing Talk Talk’s ‘Life’s What You Make It’. It doesn’t seem an obvious choice for you, the way that perhaps the other cover on the album [‘Nothin’, by Townes van Zandt] does.
Well, again, something that I like to try and do is take songs that are thought of in one particular way, or in one context, and show that there can be a lot more to them. And you know, ever since I first heard that song, I’d thought you could do it like it was something off ‘Funhouse’, it’s got that huge bassline and it’s just this big sort of grinding thing.

And, of course, at those same live shows I’ve been noticing the make up of the crowd has been changing. They seem to be getting younger.
It’s very gratifying. I get lots of messages on MySpace from young people, from 16 years olds. And when I play live, nobody calls out for ‘Shivers’ any more, because they are too young to have any kind of historical attachment to it. It doesn’t mean anything to them. It’s peculiar in a way, it just seemed to happen of it’s own accord. And it’s great, because no longer do I look out from the stage and just see a bunch of ageing ex-junkies, or whatever.

Yes, I can imagine that would get depressing.
Well, yes, but I think that kind of thing – calling out for old songs – is more of a problem for the audience than for the performer. But then it becomes a problem for the performer, when you have people coming to see you, and they just want you to remain the same forever.

But then you can’t have been “rediscovered”, because you’ve never really been away.
There is definitely a lot more interest in me, and what I’m doing at the moment, much more than there has been for a long time. And considering that I haven’t really done anything major for quite a while, it’s pretty strange.

Given that you are firmly in the present, then, do you listen to much current music, or go out to see much played live?
No. I never go and see new bands these days. The only recent Australian band that I’ve liked are HTRK, I think they’re a fantastic band. If they stick around for long enough they could achieve something really amazing.

Do you listen to CDs?
I listen to very few CDs, very few recent CDs. Most of my inspiration for writing tends to come from literature or film, rather than music. Although having said that, I must admit that I am really slack about listening to new things, it’s something that seems to happen to a lot of people, especially musicians, that when they reach a certain age, they become less and less interested in what other people are doing musically.

I guess what I’m reaching for – without wanting to put you on the spot at all – is your take on the way things stand today, based on the perspective of your 30 or so years of being involved in music.
Well … I think that it’s pretty much the same as it’s always been. Unfortunately music is still dominated by people who have no interest in really doing anything but rocking. When I went to Japan back in July [for Fuji Rock], I was introduced to Fall Out Boy, who are a particular bugbear of mine, and of course they didn’t have the faintest idea who I was, which naturally I was quite pleased about. But I’d have to say that I see them as being typical of a lot of bands, in the sense that the only purpose of their lyrics is to be there as something to hang a melody on. And they’re all very collegiate at heart too.

And this is the world you are about launch a new album into. At least you’ve got some quality acts [DZ in Sydney, Kes Band and The Dacios in Melbourne] as supports.
Yes, they were recommended to me by other people. As I said earlier, I don’t really keep up with what’s going on. John [Shilo] does, though, he knows a lot, so he came up with some suggestions. The live band for these shows is going to include Brian [Hooper], by the way, so it’ll be me, Mick, John and Brian.

And on that note – disregarding a bit of stray chatter that doesn’t bear repeating — it feels like we are done.

+

Pop Crimes is out now through Liberation Music. It will be launched at the Oxford Arts Factory on October 22 with DZ, and the Prince Bandroom on October 29 with Kes Band and The Dacios.

  -   Published on Monday, October 19 2009 by Trevor Block.
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Your Comments

kuroneko  said about 4 years ago:

Rowland S. Howard tells Trevor Block he’d gladly set a match to the past.

I don't think he did say that, actually. That's just pulled from the presser.


outerspacextrapnel  said about 4 years ago:

NEEDS MORE BAD SEEDS.


timewaster  said about 4 years ago:

In the top photo, he kinda looks like Annie Lennox.


outerspacextrapnel  said about 4 years ago:

ALSO NEEDS MORE BIRTHDAY PARTY.


outerspacextrapnel  said about 4 years ago:

Sorry, I've ruined this thread / icon. I think it's one of the better interviews. It's good to see a musician who's still in the business, plugging away doing his own thing.


Mr Wu  said about 4 years ago:

The first time I saw him at cherry in 06 someone yelled out ''play shivers''. Haven't heard it since though.


JunkiePhil  said about 4 years ago:

hehe... I know who that was too, Mr Wu. Rowland replied
''Not tonight, Josephine!''
Her name is Kate, so I don't know what he was on about really.


mathieson  said about 4 years ago:

It's a Napoleon reference.


elle-zo  said about 4 years ago:

does anyone know what Rowland's family heritage is? there must be a big Eastern European clan in there somewhere - where do those cheekbones come from??


Mr Wu  said about 4 years ago:

Phwrr. Good memory. Was a cracking show. Made me go back the next week but the bastard didn't turn up.

Still waiting for the vinyl. Stupid jb and their ''circumstances beyond their control''.


JunkiePhil  said about 4 years ago:

People still yell shit out at him though.
Last show was
''EXIT EVERYTHING!''
He looked at me and said ''Sorry?''
So I just smiled like a dork.


Block  said about 4 years ago:

elle-zo said 6 minutes ago:
does anyone know what Rowland's family heritage is?

Not a question I thought to ask, sorry.


montyclift  said about 4 years ago:

needs more birthday party/needs less birthday party.

eternal arguement.

man has history. man still making music.

many reading would know the past. many reading wouldn't. but should.

nice conversation, blocker.


untold/animals  said about 4 years ago:

Needs more HTRK.


FrankieTeardrop  said about 4 years ago:

Who the fuck is Fallout Boy?


elle-zo  said about 4 years ago:

fall out boy - some kind of emo haircut band, i think


LaxCharisma  said about 4 years ago:

...I wonder if there will be vinyl copies of the album available at the show.

Good interview by the way Block. It's nice to see the focus steer away from Rowlands past and back to what it is he does. Hopefully this will inspire more output from him. I'd love to see him release more albums.


Block  said about 4 years ago:

Cheers Lax.
The focus on the present/future was completely deliberate, in both this and the album review.


tomcoleman  said about 4 years ago:

god he's boring


spelled13  said about 4 years ago:

fall out boy - clem bastow's fave band


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annehelena  said about 4 years ago:

Quite an itch, indeed!


Block  said about 4 years ago:

starfucker said 30 minutes ago:
Richard Lowenstein has a documentory in production that centres on Melbourne's post punk era. He has been busy interviewing those who influenced it. Rowland Howard was no doubt amongst them.

Not quite. Part of an email I was sent recently: As you're probably aware, Ghost Films are currently working on a doco about Rowland S. Howard. As part of this, we're trying to collect all the images, videos, sound files etc, for possible inclusion in the film, as well as a general Rowland archive.

As an old friend I'm sure he is deeply saddened by his death.

This is certainly true.


timewaster  said about 4 years ago:

Lindsay Gravina has been making a documentary about Rowland for years. Is this the same film?


starfucker  said about 4 years ago:

I recieved a similar email but it did not mention that it was entirely focused on Rowland. Wonderful if it is.


luxury  said about 4 years ago:

i think that lowenstein took over a long running project-doco on rowland, if lindsay gravina was working on it that may have been it. he's also working on the expanded version of we're living on dog food - these are two seperate things i think.


LaxCharisma  said about 4 years ago:

I really hope Teenage Snuff Film gets re-released on vinyl.


gottagetawookie  said about 4 years ago:

it seems they [advertised PDF] (http://www.google.com.au/url?sa=t&source=web&ct=res&cd=2&ved=0CAoQFjAB&url=http%3A%2F%2Ffilm.vic.gov.au%2Fresources%2Fdocuments%2FPosition_Description_-_Ghost_Picture_Pty_Ltd_-Producer%255B1%255D.pdf&ei=thdKS8H1LpLm7APV37TXCw&usg=AFQjCNFFJOBE4CIzb-c_qYKSD7bXu0wDw&sig2=pNK7xJZMCFGp98Eto7EeVQ) http://www.google.com.au/url?sa=t&source=web&ct=res&cd=2&ved=0CAoQFjAB&url=http%3A%2F%2Ffilm.vic.gov.au%2Fresources%2Fdocuments%2FPosition_Description_-_Ghost_Picture_Pty_Ltd_-Producer%255B1%255D.pdf&ei=thdKS8H1LpLm7APV37TXCw&usg=AFQjCNFFJOBE4CIzb-c_qYKSD7bXu0wDw&sig2=pNK7xJZMCFGp98Eto7EeVQ

Not quite. Part of an email I was sent recently: As you're probably aware, Ghost Films are currently working on a doco about Rowland S. Howard. As part of this, we're trying to collect all the images, videos, sound files etc, for possible inclusion in the film, as well as a general Rowland archive.


gottagetawookie  said about 4 years ago:

Evilio  said about 4 years ago:

Extended Dog Food = Less focus on the Ears, wider time span. The Rowland doco was started by Lindsay, handed over to Ghost.

--

We are putting together a feature documentary on Rowland and we are
looking for copies of anything anyone may have on photo, video or
mobile phone for use in the film. We will give you full credit for all
footage used.. Please contact us on:

matthew@ghostfilm.net

and we can arrange how to get copies..

MATTHEW ELLERY

GHOST Pictures Pty Ltd
6/400 St Kilda Rd
St Kilda, VIC 3182
www.ghostfilm.net

tel: +61 3 9534 3100
fax: +61 3 9095 7315
email: matthew@ghostfilm.net


elle-zo  said about 4 years ago:

just got round to watching We're Living on Dog Food last night.

so wonderful, so brilliantly put together. Alannah Hill was making me laugh


whitey  said about 4 years ago:

god god. I want him back


Block  said about 4 years ago:

Stencil art appearing in St. Kilda:

ps whitey, see at the top of the page, where it says ''whitey'' in a pink box? Click that- I sent you a message.


FrankieTeardrop  said about 4 years ago:

That's awesome!


timewaster  said about 4 years ago:

'Pop Crimes' will be released in the UK through Infectious (the major label co-owned by Michael Gudinski).

Wouldn't Rowland S. Howard's legacy be better served by an indie label has supported his friends and collaborators? Rowland should be released on a seminal label like 4AD, Mute or Domino. Not a major like Infectious, best known for commercial FM rock like Muse and Temper Trap. Surely that type of label won't understand Rowland's potential audience...


HEB  said about 4 years ago:

It's finally getting a UK release? Great!

Teenage Snuff Film was on Cooking Vinyl in the UK
Muse are on their own label - Helium 3 - not Infectious
4AD is a Beggars hybrid now


timewaster  said about 4 years ago:

Muse were on Infectious.

Anyway, Rowland is on the wrong type of label for the UK.

Surely 4AD, Domino or Mute would jump at the chance to release his final album. Then his great music would be exposed to the right audience. Instead he's on a big commercial major label. It just seems wrong.


Steven Screaming  said about 4 years ago:

Why would it be better on an indie label, it doesn't matter, it's just good that it will be released in the U.K. Any label that is truly independent wouldn't be able to distribute this album as well as it deserves to be internationaly anyway, in the U.K or any other country.

His work should be heard and pushed more into the public eye. He deserves that for all that he was.


HEB  said about 4 years ago:

The new version of Infectious really only shares a name with the label you site - the one Muse, PWEI, Ash, Seafood and The Paradise Motel were signed to has effectively not been in use for years.

The Temper Trap have saturation airplay in the UK
It would be great if they can do that for Rowland
I'm not going to demean this thread by a bickering over the choice of label
At least I'll be able to get a legal copy of the CD now - so thank you to whoever makes that possible


timewaster  said about 4 years ago:

Oh come on...you really can't be serious.

In the long run, Rowland S. Howard should be on the same labels as artists like Nick Cave, The Triffids, Pixies, Suicide... not a big bland label like Infectious that shoves commercial 'rock' down everybody's throat. Besides, Rowland will never get 'saturation' commercial airplay. His music is too dark and uncompromising.

Pity that he didn't have a good manager while he was alive.


monkeyman  said about 4 years ago:

Liberation paid for Rowland to make an album, so I guess Gudinskli has the right to release it in the UK.

Rowland said in interviews one of the reasons he didn't make another album sooner was that he had no money to make one and no one to put it out for him, so he had no incentive - none of these UK indie labels were putting up the cash to let him record.

It's awesome that it's getting a wide UK release, but a real shame that he's not around to see it and tour behind it.


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