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.