A Sound Concept: Spring Heeled Interviews Mick Harvey

When I heard Mick Harvey was touring in support of his album Sketches From the Book of the Dead, I decided immediately to set off to Malmö, Sweden to catch one of the concerts. At club Babel, Mick (pictured center) was joined by friends and regular collaborators Rosie Westbrook (upright bass - pictured left) and J.P. Shilo (violin and guitar - pictured right) for the evening of September 22. Before the concert that day, I spoke to Mick about his ongoing series of European tour dates (full details of which are available at http://mickharvey.com ), plans for his next album, and also topics relating to his past involvement with The Birthday Party and Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds.

SH: You’ve been happy with how the shows have been going so far?

MH: Yeah, it’s been really great. I’ve enjoyed them. Last year I was on tour with Polly Harvey most of the year and I couldn’t really fit in many of my own shows, but I think I wanted to release the album anyway because it was done, and I just wanted to put it out, you know. So, I didn’t really get to play properly in Europe off the back of that album. So, this year looked pretty open, but I didn’t want to really start traveling in the first half of the year because I’d done so much last year, like five return trips to Australia and stuff like this, it’s just kinda crazy. So, I just started looking at prospects for doing stuff in September and October - it’s really still being dates in connection with the recent album. And I’d realized I’d never played in Scandinavia, so that was something we started setting up. And it’s been really good, probably better than I’d expected, actually.

SH: And you had Thomas Wydler on board for some of it?

MH: Thomas was here for the first four shows, up to Goteborg, and then flying him to Finland was - it was kind of good he didn’t come too, it was a good decision in the end. Because it just would have been difficult logistically with the drums, the stage at the second venue we couldn’t have fitted on it. You know, it was stuff like that, it was good that he wasn’t there actually, because it made it a lot easier. And we can, you know, we do play in Australia just as a three piece and occasionally we get a sit-in drummer, but Tommy only really plays about half the set, so we’re still playing a lot of the set like that anyways. And we play whole shows with just me and Rosie, too. So that’s all fine. We just reverted to doing it that way, which is nice.

And it’s been great, you know. I was sort of thinking, “Oh, that’ll do Scandinavia” and I was sort of thinking about doing May-June of next year, doing more dates in Europe, especially if I get a new album together. I was thinking I’d have just done Scandinavia, but it’s been so positive I’ll try and come back and do more shows here. Just do a few different places. Go to Stockholm and Bergen or something. Places I haven’t got to.

SH: Do you feel the songs have been impacted by playing so many shows in succession?

MH: No, well, they do always change gradually in the live format, especially with such open songs. It’s not like there’s really a set arrangement where the drums and bass are meant to go like this and that; there’s a lot of free moments so things do kind of change slightly. But I think it’s kind of developed to where it is anyway by now. We played quite a few shows in Australia, and did about six or seven shows in Europe in the middle of last year just with Rosie, and I think Tommy joined us for two of those. And then we’ve been playing with J.P., we’d done quite a lot of shows in Australia over a period of time, so that changed and had been worked out already, with what J.P. is doing with the older songs. So, it’s been in this kind of form for a little while.

(Mick Harvey, Rosie Westbrook and J.P. Shilo performing at Babel in Malmö, Sweden)

SH: How many songs from Sketches are you playing per set?

MH: Probably I think about six or seven. The most we play is about eight. I think there’s about four of the songs from the album that don’t really lend themselves to the live, to being live, particularly. There’s a couple that have piano, that are kind of really piano based, and “A Place Called Passion” I’ve never played that live; that would have been really hard, such a kind of studied and controlled song. And that kind of thing’s not so interesting, I don’t think, to play live. It’s just hard work to get it to just kind of be like it’s meant to be, as opposed to other things that you can be a bit more - you can push them in different directions and they can go into slightly different sorts of things. It’s just much more interesting than getting bogged down in having to recreate something, you know.

SH: So, you still seem pretty busy these days, even though I know part of the reason why you left the Bad Seeds -

MH: Well, it would seem that way, yeah. It’s kind of odd that the observation would have been that last year I was on tour all the time with PJ Harvey, but actually I was probably home three quarters of the year. So, we kept doing little two week blocks, and then having another five or six weeks off. And of course in leaving the Bad Seeds, all the kind of business stuff that I had to do in that band sort of disappeared. So that’s kind of invisible to the public. So, anything that’s observed about what I’m doing artistically or musically, that’s probably been continuing on some sort of similar level in some ways. But yeah, all that business stuff, all that kind of pressure, all that kind of involvement with the Bad Seeds and the commitments with all that sort of stuff, is just not there any more, so I’m actually a lot freer.

SH: Were you doing things like arranging the tours?

MH: Well, I mean it was fairly invisible. I did a lot of delegating. But all the actual decision making was still kinda coming back to me, and then if there was something that I thought Nick needed to say what he thought about it too, then I’d ask him, “Oh, what’ll we do about that?” So that whole thing about being the management is really odd because from the outside it wouldn’t really’ve been all that observable, but actually there was no manager. It was just us still, and we had all these delegated people and us, and you make the decision about what you’re going to do, that’s the management. Everybody else is just putting it into action. But yeah, I’d make the decision about what the crew was getting paid. The tour coordinator would come to me and say, “Mick, they want more money than we’re paying them. What are we going to pay them?” I’d say, “Well, we’re going to pay them this.” So I was being the manager, yeah. I didn’t have to spend a lot of time each day doing that, but it was a lot of emailing. And actually that’s so time consuming! Everyone thinks modern communications are great, you just sit at a computer for hours, writing these fucking emails! [laughter] It’s really, that’s the time consuming thing, you know. And the stress factor that comes from that, from the expectation of the immediate response and stuff, especially when it’s business stuff. It’s like, “I sent you an email! I haven’t heard from you! It’s been three hours!” And you know, you’re like, “Well, it’s the middle of the night in Australia.” So all that stress is gone away, which is fantastic. But yeah like the last Bad Seeds European tour - I found it quite recently actually [laughter] it was just a piece of paper saying where we go, take a break in the middle, and then we should try and do that. And I sent that to the agent, and basically with a few variations that was the tour. So yeah, it was completely, I was deciding - I’d discuss it with Nick, I’d say, “Well, how long should we do? Should we do four or five weeks?” “Yeah, yeah, we’ll do about that and that’ll be ok.” So then I’d just put it together and send it to the agent. So that’s the management really. Then the agent put the shows together. Then he’d send me through the venues and a couple of ‘em I’d say “This venue looks really wrong.” So, I was rejecting venues, I don’t know, I was doing all that stuff. It’s great that I don’t have to do that any more. And now they’re going on tour for four months at the start of next year, and then they’re doing the festivals through the summer, and I’m so glad I’m not having to consider doing this. Wow. I’d have to be saying no, I’d basically be having to decide to leave the band now, because I simply couldn’t do it. It’s possible that if I had decided to stay on, one decision I could have made would have been to say, “Ok, let’s roll on, but I’m stopping doing the management. You get a new manager, Nick, and we’ll work it in this way, and I’ll just get out of that area.” And that may have been a good choice, actually, to do that, because part of what was wrong with what was happening for me was an imbalance between my artistic work, and actually working on the music and feeling like I was involved with that, with how much business I was having to do. And it just was, well, I didn’t get into this band, I didn’t start playing music to be a fucking businessman. So for me it was really - it was part of the problem, but it wasn’t the only problem, so… But that may have alleviated a lot of the problems. But now I’d be in a position where I’d have to be leaving anyway. I simply would not do that. I wouldn’t be going on tour like that. You know, it was about the limit what we did with Polly last year. Going two weeks and being away from my family for two weeks and then back for five or six weeks, that was about as much as I could take, really. Four months on tour. And that’s not the end of it - then there’s the festivals. [laughter] It’s like, fuck! I’d be walking away I’m afraid! You know, it was the right time, clearly. Because that’s what’s happening anyway. And I would have had to pull out of the management to continue, and then this would be happening anyway, so… Whatever. So it goes! [laughter] Oh, you know, it was a good time for me too ‘cause I was working with Nick for thirty years, so it’s like, it’s quite liberating to not be doing that, suddenly, and have other prospects and other things that I’m doing and I’m kind of open, because it always used to dominate everything too - it was always the main band. It was the band that I’d been in from the beginning, so it was still kind of - it took precedence over other things, you know, it’d be number one priority if something was happening with that, you’d prioritize that, so just that that’s gone and it’s not necessarily the number one priority any more is also quite liberating. So it’s nice, so you know, there’s also great prospects for the next several years, and it’s all kind of open. And new. Which is nice, really good.

SH: And you already have a start on a new record?

MH: Oh yeah, it’s the one I’d started before Sketches. So I already had a whole kind of album demoed out - which, obviously, I’m changing the idea. It’s good that I didn’t do it at the time, ‘cause I was kinda trying to write a song cycle, and I thought it was about a particular thing, and I’ve realized now that it’s actually about something else. Which is nice. It’s actually more about - well, I thought it was kinda loosely based on the notion of love and what this idea that people - you know, like love is the kind of the empowering thing and a reason to keep going or whatever, which is kind of a preposterous notion really in itself. But I’ve realized it’s more about that being a preposterous notion, so it’s not really a song cycle about love, it’s a song cycle about something completely different! [laughter] The flip side of that, in a way, really. And so, the kind of balance of what I need to, or of how I have to direct the work, is actually quite different, I’ve realized. Actually I’d been on the wrong path with aspects of it, so I’m glad I’ve had the time to put that on the back burner. And now I’ve finally come back to it and I’ve been kind of writing these little link songs, but it is meant to be like a song cycle. So, hopefully I can figure it out. As a musician or a songwriter, it’s about figuring out what you want to do. And once you figure out what you want to do, then it’s ok. So I’m almost there. I almost know what I want to make!

SH: I think that’s the hardest part.

MH: Yeah! It’s the hardest part. Actually going, “Yeah, it’s right. It’s what I want to do. Yes.” Because it’s a big commitment to go through. To make the next album, and then you gotta put it out, and then the whole thing comes in behind it. I mean that’s what you want to be doing. But it’s also like, if you put it into a record company, if they still exist in six months, then you know they’ve got expectations, or they want you to tour, so the whole thing kinda becomes - but you want to do it for that purpose too, you know. So it becomes a whole commitment into that next project. So then you’ve gotta decide whether you want to do that too! [laughter] Do I want to go into that zone? I’m kind of at that point. So, I’ll be deciding that when I go home in November, I’ll be kind of trying to make the final moves and the final decisions about where I want to take it, and whether I’m ready to take it there. So, I’ve got a lot of stuff there. A lot of material.

SH: Is it mostly songs that you’ve written?

MH: It’s a mixture. So it’s a bit more like halfway between the first two albums and the Sketches album I suppose. Which is partly why I decided to follow through the Sketches project first. Because I really felt that it would send a stronger message about my artistic intention, than doing another album that might have seemed just similar to the first couple, but that I’d written maybe a bit more on. Which to me is, you know, I don’t have any problem with that - I like that, I like interpreting and pulling out little-known songs, or unknown songs, or unreleased songs. I have done quite a few unreleased songs by people - it’s not exactly doing a cover version is it? If it’s never been released, it can’t be a cover, technically speaking. So I really like doing that, and I think it’s really valid. For me it’s particularly valid; it’s a very valid art form to work in. So that’s almost like the model of writing an album is a bit more unusual for me, you know. A bit more of a one-off and something I probably won’t do again because it’s not my kind of my normal thing. So I’m really happy, there’ll be a mixture of so-called covers, and my own material, probably about fifty-fifty, I’m not sure about how it will work. I’ll have to make those decisions.

SH: Do you feel that songwriting has become a little easier for you now?

MH: Yeah. I think just the practice of those things, you get into a system with them, yeah. So, if I approach writing a song now I kinda have a much better idea of how I can go about it. And it’s like anything you know, you bounce up and down on a trampoline and do a somersault, then you know better how to do it the next time. So it’s sort of the same thing, in a way. Just the exercise, the actual process of doing it. Systems that you can adopt to go, to just to try and get something out there, you know. But I need to have something that I actually want to write about, then I kind of know that I can sit down and just work at it ‘til things that I like start coming. Which is the same with this album - I’ve got those things. If I understand what it is I’m trying to say, then I’ll know what to write, which songs are missing from the idea.

SH: And I think I read awhile back that you wanted to do a Wallbangers record too?

MH: Yeah, well I’d like to do that too, but that certainly would have sent a very peculiar message about what I was doing artistically. And I have to decide on a specific concept for that too, like a kind of a sort of sound concept in a way. Like I think I need to take it back to being even rawer, like even more rudimentary and kind of rawer or something. And also thematically, just what those songs can be that are kind of really quite funny, but at the same time, have a kind of side that’s got some value to it, rather than just being throw-away, just purely comedy, that’s actually got some kind of angle in them that’s got some substance. A bit like “Kick the Drugs” I suppose, is the lead - well, obviously it’s pretty funny, but I’m not really sure whether I mean it or not. Well, you know, I do mean that, but it’s not an anti-drug song either. So it’s kind of got a really interesting balance of possibilities in there that’s kind of funny but serious at the same time, and not really positioning itself with anything, unless you take it really literally, like some Spanish people have. Like, [with accented voice] “You are very anti-drugs!” No, that’s not what I’m saying! No, you didn’t quite catch the drift there. It’s like, there’s a bit of playfulness in the whole thing there as well, so…

SH: I think humor is something that’s constant throughout your work, even if it is at times in subtle ways.

MH: Yeah, I pretty well think it has to be. I mean you can’t be just po-faced about everything. Even on Sketches, a lot of the songs have got lines and observations in them, about even tragic situations that are quite lighthearted. The idea with that too is that the descriptions in the verses of what’s happening are so mundane and so kind of prosaic. Just in your back fence in the suburbs, the other one’s you’re in Paris but you’re just kind of somewhere that’s pretty nondescript. You know, it’s like that. You’re in South Yarra in this flat, and it’s all pretty plain. The same in “Two Paintings” the whole thing about the start is all intended as really a very prosaic description of a pretty everyday kind of activity. And that’s what it was, so why not describe it that way? It was a mundane activity. All that needed to be said was that, you know. And then the kind of emotional aspect comes out of the end of that, which is the point of the way the song is constructed. I think I wrote an early form of that song had a verse with just lists of all the stuff that was in the car, so the idea from the outset was to make it that kind of everyday - it’s just stuff, like a shopping list sort of thing, you know it’s meant to be in that zone. Perhaps to kind of highlight the emotional poetry of the end, or something? That kind of stands out of where you’ve gotten to in your feelings, but in the background’s just all this mundane stuff. But it still leads to this - anyway that’s dissecting a particular song.

But again, I think a lot of the lyrics are quite funny, yeah. Certainly “October Boy” - a lot of the verses are intended to be quite ridiculously, deliberately throw-away and not po-faced or kind of weighty and heavy about the thing. I think Rowland would have liked it to be - he really liked kind of throw-away things that had actually had these kind of throw-away ideas that were actually as important as non-throw-away ideas if you see what I mean.

SH: I know he was really fond of girl groups.

MH: Yeah, yeah! He just loved all that. Very much so. And you know I didn’t want to make it an in-depth study. I just wanted to make it a little fun kind of thing, actually. And I know there’s heavy verses in there too, but then that’s always the kind of contrast I’m trying to set up there as well.

SH: I guess that could be reflective of your relationship with him too?

MH: A little bit, yeah. Yeah.

SH: I was also going to ask about, as I’ve never been able to find a lot on him, Tracy Pew. What was he like personally?

MH: Yeah, I mean this is one of the interesting things, isn’t it, that someone like that who was so critical to the band and to Rowland and to Nick and everything, and just with the passage of time, he’s sort of lost in the mists; people don’t know about his role, they don’t understand. I think even in the aftermath of The Birthday Party people didn’t understand his role. They’d sort of talk to me in interviews, I remember in the ’80s, and just sort of talk about The Birthday Party and just try and talk about me, Nick and Rowland, and I’d say, “Whoa, whoa, whoa.” Tracy was the - he didn’t write a lot of songs, I think he only co-wrote “She’s Hit” and one other thing.

SH: “The Plague” was a very peculiar song.

MH: A very peculiar song, yeah. But I’ve always said, and I’ve probably been quoted several times on this you know, his playing and his approach to what he was doing was so particularly strong, that we wrote a lot of songs knowing how Tracy would play them. So while writing the music, me and Rowland and Nick, we were able to just sort of write bass lines that you knew how that was gonna sound - you could write this bass line just on the guitar and just go, “Oh, that’s gonna sound fantastic.” He was very, very important to all of us really. And even in Rowland’s documentary, Genevieve said after the thing was kind of finished, you know she just said, “Oh, Rowllie would have been appalled that there’s nothing about Tracy in there.” Because it was such a huge thing when he died, it affected us all really, really heavily. It was really pretty devastating, actually. And it was a really important event for everyone, in our lives. A really kind of pivotal event in our lives when Tracy died. Because he’d been so much a part of - it’s all we did for five years was be in that band when we were really young, and he was, you know, like our soul brother. And it was a huge loss, because he was an incredibly talented person. And I don’t know if he would of been able to continue playing music because he’d got this epilepsy, I think from drinking, and od’ing on heroin, and drinking… He’d sort of brought it on himself, and he wasn’t gonna change his ways. Not Tracy! No fucking way. At that time actually, in early ‘86, and this is probably little known, I don’t know if it’s come out - it might be in Ian Johnston’s book, actually I can’t remember if I talked to him about it, but you know Barry had disappeared the scene, he’d sort of vacated his bass playing chair, and you know, good on ‘em, gone off to do what obviously proved to be a kind of long and focused solo career and all sorts of projects. But we needed a bass player, we needed to decide about the structure of the band, and we seriously discussed getting Tracy back in, getting him on tour, but we realized that he was probably going to have trouble on tour. Because he’d developed this thing and he was on medication, and it wasn’t gonna to work. He would have died in the middle of the tour. So yeah, I think we realized it wasn’t a practical decision, unfortunately. But you know, at the time when The Birthday Party broke up and Nick wanted to start doing solo work, you know, one of the key reasons why Tracy wouldn’t have been invited was because Nick wouldn’t have been able to - I felt - that Nick wouldn’t have felt free enough to just do any stupid thing he might want to try. Because if Tracy were there, he just would have felt too silly. Like Tracy would have just ridiculed him from the couch or something! So Nick really needed to establish a new thing, like, that he was in charge of. And that had happened, so we’d been going for two-and-a-half, three years, and it would have been fine to get Tracy back in then ‘cause it would have been established as a different thing. It would have been different then to the dynamic of the way The Birthday Party operated, which I was fine to adapt to very quickly, I didn’t have a problem with that. Though, if me and Tracy had been there, it would have been much harder, I think, for Nick to adapt and kind of take that step, ‘cause he would have had too much weight of old kind of baggage around, and it would have kept him in that zone, you know. But yeah, huge loss. I don’t know. Hard to explain about him, really. But you know, when people die kinda young like that, you never know what they would have done. But I think he would have been, as a very creative person, I think he probably would have become a writer. He was a great writer - a really good writer. But it remains unknown.

And it’s a little bit too, like Dave Alexander of The Stooges or something, you know. A lot of people say all that stuff on the first two albums, all those bassy riffs and stuff, is all coming from his feel and everything. And I can really see how that’s probably true. Knowing how a band operates, and you’re listening to how they were with him, and then obviously Williamson’s a different thing, and has pushed Asheton onto the bass, and Williamson more writes the songs too. So there’s something about the feel of the thing too that’s so particular with Alexander, and nobody really thinks about him. This came up the other day actually, and I was thinking it’s probably right, he was probably absolutely critical to the way they sounded, you know. Just that loping kind of groove in the bass playing. ‘Cause you know, as much as Mike Watt’s fantastic, I didn’t feel that when I saw The Stooges, I didn’t feel that was there. It’s a different feel, you know. And it’s the same with Tracy, he had a unique feel.