Mick Harvey Interview

Revue, December, 1994

by Michael Dwyer

Fremantle, Western Australia, December 1994

The front rows shrink back with a roar, half thrilled, half terrified, almost as if that was a chainsaw in the skinny guy's hand rather than a microphone. Sure Henry Rollins incites a similar response, but he's built like a tattooed cement truck. Nick Cave has the physical presence of a scarecrow, but he's not short on respect.

Ex-Birthday Party, ex-post-punk pioneer, ex-junkie casualty, all-time global indie music press hero, still one of the most consistently brilliant writer/ performers working on the perimeters -- and we're talking a long way from REM central -- of contemporary rock music.

Funny that his fans should be scared witless of him.

"I think the image kind of comes to you and you don't necessarily have much control over it," says Mick Harvey, Bad Seed, fielding perhaps his least favourite topic of discussion. "I think we've always pretty much been who we are and a kind of image formed out of it."

Right. So behind The Bad Seeds' murderous mug shots there's a band that really does drink the blood of endangered reptiles prior to going on stage?

"I'm a family man," the gentleman guitarist says with a distinct air of 'steady on'. "Well, nearly a family man. Nick and Martin (Casey) have both got kids, we're all into our mid 30s and no, we don't drink... er, whose blood did you say?

"People want to think that, I guess. The image creates itself. You don't even have to give people actual fuel to build that image, they'll make that for you if they want it and there's very little you can do about it.

"Certainly there's the humour versus Nick's image. Our work, his lyrics in particular, but the music as well, gets presented in a lot of circles as very humourless and nothing could be further from the truth.

"I find a lot of normal mainstream music completely humourless, to be honest. I don't see why people don't recognize that. I think our music is very entertaining and amusing and even some of the weird sides of it musically stem very much from a strong, perverse sense of humour."

Jangling Jack, from the Bad Seeds' most recent album Let Love In, is a great example. It's a positively evil slammer about an affable tourist who walks into the wrong bar and cops a bullet from some grinning psychopath for being a little too gregarious.

Inside two minutes our hapless hero is dying in a pool of blood and vomit, crying out for his mummy.

"Very black humour, sure," Harvey concedes, "but the music is very comic too. I mean, the music's a joke in that instance, the way it's such a slammed-out, dumb rock song is quite deliberate. I've always found a lot of Nick's lyrics very funny, the way they're delivered and the way we approach them musically adds to it."

So how collaborative is a recording session with Nick Cave? Are The Bad Seeds as much in control as the guy whose name comes first in the credits?

"Everyone's there making suggestions constantly as we're recording and overdubbing but whether everyone has an even voice I'm not really sure," Harvey laughs. "There's some complicated system as to whose voice is heard more. Certainly Nick has to be happy with what's happening for something to go ahead.

"We're not really big on arguments in the studio. People see pretty much eye to eye. Blixa (Bargeld) flies into a bit of a rage sometimes but he wouldn't even realize he's doing it. He's not angry at anybody, it's just the way he conducts himself," Harvey chortles. "He lets off steam and gets excited.

"A lot of disagreements are averted by the fact that it's not really a democratic group. With Nick as the leader it's clear that if it does come to a disagreement, if Nick doesn't like it, it's not on. And if Nick does like it, it takes quite a few of the band to not like it to get it vetoed."

Similarly, it took the whole band ganging up on their leader for this album's title track, I Let Love In, to make it onto the album.

Conceptually, of course, Cave as lyric writer is entirely to blame. His oft-reported fascination with macabre crime fiction and the blood and damnation part of religious mythology informs a fair whack of the band's subject matter as well as permeating the uniquely black mood of their records.

"The larger part of what he does is very much to my taste," Harvey says, "but rather than the superficial subject matter, it's more the emotions or the ideas he puts into them and the power that they have about the human condition that I relate to.

"Things like his religious imagery I must relate to quite strongly as well, just from my background: my father's a priest so his fascination with that area doesn't seem abnormal to me at all.

"As for the murder stuff and his things with prisons and the 'southern gothic' thing that people lay on him, all of those areas I find are just vehicles for putting his views across on life: being an individual, dealing with your human condition, mortality, relationships and everything else. I relate to what he's saying very much on that level."

Mick Harvey's relationship with Nick Cave extends way beyond their formative musical years with the Boys Next Door during the punk heyday of the late 70s, back to their shared school days at Melbourne's Caulfield Grammar School.

Harvey was there when The Boys Next Door moved to London as The Birthday Party in 1980 and was an original Bad Seed in 1984, along with drummer Thomas Wydler and guitarist Blixa Bargeld. Pianist Conway Savage (Harem Scarem) and bass player Martin P Casey (Triffids) complete the current line-up.

"The Birthday Party stuff I listened to fairly recently," Harvey says when lured into retrospective mode. "I was putting together the Hits thing and when it came out I put it on just to check it out. I was very curious actually..."

What did you hear?

"That would be very hard for me to describe. That's a big ask. Something that you were so committed to, something that was What You Were Doing With Your Life, and it was 12 or 14 years ago...

"I find it fascinating, some of it brilliant and some of it really strange and I wonder what we thought we were doing! The Boys Next Door album, Door Door, I'm not very proud of but certainly the Birthday Party stuff (three albums and three EPs) I'm 95 percent really proud of.

"I'm not 20 years old any more with something I've got to prove, necessarily," he says, snapping back to the present, "though you've always got to prove something I suppose. The touring was a bit long and a full-on this year (four months through Europe and America). I'm sure the family men in the band would rather have been spending a bit more time at home."

The Seeds' part in the annual Lollapalooza tour across America was particularly stressful, Harvey says, though the band did manage to release tension by "letting their hair down". Even approaching from America's allegedly 'Alternative' flank, they found the whole sorry concept of mainstream acceptance in the USA came sharply into focus.

"We don't fit in with that," he says flatly. "That's the problem I think. Even our American record company and management has realised that we don't fit and we're not likely to, so they're going to have to make the best of it from what we offer them.

"To get mainstream acceptance, in 99 percent of cases, you have to play the whole game and to do that you've already put yourself on the line really. You've played the game, you've necessarily done things which don't have anything to do with just creating what you want to create."

A collection of murder ballads is hardly likely to kick down the studio doors at USA-FM, but that's not going to stop Nick Cave's next record going ahead. Recording has already begun and yes, Kylie Minogue is still a prospect as honorary Bad Seed for the project.

"There's obviously a humorous side to doing that simply because of public perceptions but it's quite a serious venture," Mick Harvey insists. "Nick's still got one of these murder ballads which he wants her to do but she's a very difficult person to pin down. I think Nick would like to show people that she can do something else."

Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds play the Fremantle Passenger Terminal tomorrow night, Friday December 9. Kylie remains unconfirmed but Dave Graney will definitely support with the Coral Snakes.

© 1994 Michael Dwyer (mdwyer@iinet.net.au)
First published in The West Australian Revue, 8.12.94.


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