09th Dec2009

History Lesson: Mick Harvey

by Todd


The first time I saw Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire was a life-changing moment for me. The films beauty, music and message overwhelmed me and literally changed my perspective on life. One of the many messages of the film was it’s ode to appreciating the smallest things in life; the color of a flower, the smell of food and the sensation of touching a womans’ skin. Within the film, there are performances by two bands whom I was only vaguely familiar with previously. Nick Cave and the Bad Seed and Crime and the City Solution provided the perfect, bleak, yet beautiful backdrop for a brilliant scene inside a club.
In much the same way that I learned to appreciate the grandeur of life, I learned to appreciate the nuance of music while watching these bands.
The common thread in both bands is the legendary Mick Harvey. Starting out with Nick Cave during their time as the seminal band The Birthday Party and then following them to England, he made brilliant contributions to Crime and the City Solution and to Nick Cave.
We were able to catch up to Mick and made an effort to cover as much of his legendary career as time would allow.

TDOA: The decision for The Birthday Party to move from Australia to England was a pivotal moment for music. What led The Birthday Party to move to London from Australia?

MH: Market forces. We were unlikely to be able to survive in Australia making the music we were. We felt having a much larger potential market might make the whole undertaking sustainable on a practical level. And that is to say nothing of the artist’s near constant drive to get their work to as large an audience as possible, which makes sense for a variety of reasons.

TDOA: I’ve always felt that The Birthday Party were one of the worlds most under-rated bands. Would you agree?

MH: I’ve never heard it mentioned that The Birthday Party are underrated. In my experience we are frequently cited as having been influential on a scale far exceeding the level of success we enjoyed when we existed. I fact, we were probably disproportionately influential at the time we existed too. Our style and approach didn’t exactly court commercial success.

TDOA: How would you compare your approach to guitar and music then versus later with Crime and with the Bad Seeds?

MH: It’s hard to compare approaches to music. To some degree I’m always approaching it in the same manner. I guess what was tangibly different between the two groups was the level of aggression in the music – the confrontational attitude. How that may have affected my guitar playing I can’t say.

TDOA: Can you talk about the differences in working with Simon Bonney versus Nick Cave?

MH: I’d prefer not to. One is obviously a far greater talent and much more deserving of my years of commitment and abilities. Beyond that it’s just being picky and entering fairly mundane areas. The obvious differences are in their singing and writing styles and they are there for anyone to analyze.

TDOA: Obviously your role changed musically during your tenure with C&TCS. We’d like to ask first about your guitar work on Room of Lights. Can you talk about how those songs were written and what kind of freedom Simon gave you to write the music?

MH: We had ultimate freedom with the music. I think ALL the music was written by different band members. That was mostly a collaborative process. As for the guitars…. I can’t really remember but no doubt I was trying to work in and around Rowland’s playing which is very particular but usually affords some good possibilities in being augmented rhythmically.

TDOA: Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire is one of my favorite films. I know he was a fan of the band, but I’m wondering how he was to work with. Did you get an opportunity to spend much time with him? Any good ‘behind the scenes” stories about the filming of your scenes or any anecdotes about the movie?

MH: In my experience Wenders is one of those directors who likes to let people explore their own avenues. It’s a bit like he sits back and gives you a basic framework and says, “what are you going to do with that?” To some degree he’s a bit of a voyeur in that sense which as a film maker is not a surprising tendency. The trick with that kind of method is to lure the right kind of people in with the right kind of bait. When Wenders gets it right it’s a very exciting formula as you get a lot of different personalized inputs in the mix.
Really, that’s what he did with us too. He pretty much let us suggest songs we could do and even present ideas of how etc. It’s very clever of him as one feels strongly connected with one’s contribution.

TDOA: By the time you recorded Shine, the line-up of the band had changed considerably and you had switched to drums. What led you to change instruments?

MH: Basically Simon upped sticks and went to Berlin. He gathered around him a couple of Germans to forge a new line-up and I came along waving my little flag saying I’d still love to be involved. I think drums are actually my favourite instrument so it was no giant leap for me to grab the drum stool while it was unoccupied.

TDOA: Shine is a tremendous album and the subtlety of your drumming is a key element of the record. Did the songwriting style of the band change with the change in line-up?

MH: For me the style is very different. Alex wrote much of the basic music and it gave a general lead to where we could take things with the new line-up which I was happy to go with. I think the method of songwriting was not enormously changed, though in my memory Simon was a bit more involved with the musical composition than before.

TDOA: Can you talk about Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds appearance on the Lollapalooza tour? It seemed like such an odd pairing at the time…

MH: Somehow I feel The Bad Seeds and the USA have always been a bit of an odd pairing or a bit at odds with one another. Perhaps that will change now with Nick’s new willingness to be likeable and to pander a little to his audience as opposed to the historic friction which has existed there and which to my mind Americans find unintelligible.

Lollapalooza came out of a promise we made to our record company. We had pretty much decided to not bother with America anymore but always said that if we landed something like Lollapalooza or an appropriate large tour we would make an exception. I think it’s fair to say that had we known what was in store we would not have left that door open.

TDOA: What is your favorite Bad Seeds record and why?

MH: I think my favourite albums are The First Born is Dead, Your Funeral/My Trial, Let Love In and Abattoir Blues/Lyre of Orpheus. It’s hard to be too specific. I like so many of the recordings and having worked on them all again recently doing the re-issues I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how much I liked practically ALL of that work. It is a fantastic body of work to have been involved in.

TDOA: Can you talk a little about the decision to leave the band this year and what you have planned for 2010?

MH: There were a dozen good reasons why it was time to make the decision. To isolate one would be to present an imbalanced picture. Perhaps that was the real issue – imbalance. Things were no longer the right fit and I needed to get out of there. I intend to continue with what I would normally be doing, just without the Bad Seeds as part of it, which opens up lots of time to work on things that tend to sit on the shelf for a while and lots more time for my family.

In 2010 I hope I will be doing a new film score, should be working on the new PJ Harvey album and will be trying to complete a writing project of my own – a musical one that is. I’m also working away at a documentary but that may take a few years yet.

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