In another lifetime (his!) I spoke to Rowland S. Howard. I didn’t know it at the time – neither did he, though he had far more of an idea than I did – he’d be dead in less than two months. He was dying when he made his last album, the brilliant Pop Crimes. I’ve loved that record across the last decade, I regret selling my LP but I still listen to it – still tune in to the CD, still stream it, the album still beams through me when it’s playing. I was aware of his connection to Nick Cave and I knew his work in those early bands but I really started listening back to that work after hearing his solo albums.
Here below is some of the chat I had with Howard, back in 2009. I didn’t record it – I guess I wish I had. I mean I ‘recorded it’ with pen and paper, jumped off the phone and wrote it all down as I used to do. But now I’m a podcaster and I collect conversations. So I sometimes wish I’d been better at recording the phoners from way back. Whenever I hear Rowland Howard now I’m transfixed by the music, absolutely. But I’m haunted too by the way he told me, within minutes of speaking to him, “I’ll be dead soon”. There I was taking time out from my dead-end job, dreaming of getting anywhere with my writing other than in a break-room in a dull fucking office. And the guy I was talking to – that had made a brilliant album – had been handed a death-sentence during the recording. Well, to be fair, he had – as he acknowledged – earned it.
A friend said to me just now, about another matter altogether, that “personal subtext is a curse”.
So that’s the phrase that sticks as I share this with you – the time I talked to Rowland S. Howard. And he told me he was dying. And I was there with a dying soul in a shit job and he had an album to plug and I had to ask as many polite business-type questions about it after he’d just dropped that bomb. We both laughed when I asked about touring plans. It was just something that you always asked a person with a new album…lol…
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 – with lead singer 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 then 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”.
Ah, why so quick?
“Well I’m just very sick, very, very unwell, so we couldn’t fuck 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 well…so…”
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.”
As for 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 knows he won’t 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”).
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.”
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”.
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