Profile: Mick Harvey
Once a Bad Seed...

Guitar Player, July 1996

by Gregory Isola
Sent by Greg O'Beirne

"I don't much like `standard' guitar playing unless it's really appropriate" says 37-year-old Mick Harvey, "People resort to it arbitrarily and far too easily. There are many things you can try to make the guitar a bit more unidentifiable."

Harvey and Nick Cave, whose partnership began 23 years ago as teens in Melbourne, Australia, are still churning out the same brand of gospel-tinged gothic/roots fury that surfaced with their band The Birthday Party in the late '70s and has continued through nine Bad Seeds albums. On their latest, Murder Ballads [Mute], Harvey's and co-guitarist Blixa Bargeld's playing is spiky, invigorating and impossible to pin down. "Blixa doesn't particularly like to be seen as a guitar player," Mick reveals. "He rather sees his guitar as an instrument to make different noises with."

As in much of the Seeds catalog, conventional guitar solos are all but absent from Murder Ballads. "We're not really into that," Harvey says. "It's not particularly suitable for the kind of linear, narrative songs we do. Besides, it's been done to death and by quite enough enough people to satisfy my musical curiosity. Nick never gives us a solo, anyway."

Though the clanging rhythm parts, delicate arpeggios and harsh atmospherics he offers up with the Bad Seeds are hardly restrictive, Harvey steps out with added verve on Intoxicated Man [Mute], his dramatic tribute to the late French songwriter Serge Gainsbourg. "He was an inveterate individualist," Mick says, "the only Frenchman I've come across who hybridized his musical styles and at the same time came up with some very original-sounding work. His music called for a certain enthusiasm - can't say youthful anymore - but there were definitely those moments."

From grimy gangsterisms to loopy cocktail jazz, Gainsbourg's joyously iconoclast work is in safe hands with Harvey. Take his wacky, out-of-sync leads on Harley Davidson: "I just played the same thing three times in a row in a very undisciplined fashion and with lots of bent notes," Mick laughs. "Then we triple-tracked it - it took about five minutes. If anything, that's a little homage to the guitar playing on the Velvet Underground's What Goes On?. If you haven't heard that in a while, take a refresher. It's a really, really bizarre solo but quite beautiful in its own deranged way."

Over the years Harvey's adventurous spirit has twisted many of his early influences beyond recognition. "We've always tangled up styles. As far back as The Birthday Party we wanted to break the shackles of normal formulae. So our use of 20th-century American genres like rockabilly and blues was often quite tongue-in-cheek. It wasn't that we disliked those sources, but simply that we used them as absurd points of departure."

With true punk conviction, Mick made it to The Birthday Party's demise with a single guitar to his name. "I had only a '73 Maton Wildcat - an Australian guitar built to emulate Les Paul, a Stratocaster and a Telecaster all in one. Didn't do a bad job when it was working, I must say. Excellent, but not very popular - they only made about a hundred of 'em, and I've owned two!" Mick has since experimented with a variety of pawnshop prizes, including a 1960 Epiphone semi-acoustic, but has relied mainly on his Guild Starfire IV.

After years of tracking down Fender Twins at every port of call and recording with Vox AC30s, Harvey has pared down his backline to a pocket-sized Tech 21 SansAmp pedal. "The first model, with the funny little switches," he says. "You can wind it into the most radical tones very quickly. I get an amp with a completely neutral, uninteresting sound - like a Roland JC-120 - then plug the SansAmp in. I started using it for Let Love In [in 1994], and it was brilliant. We wanted to record together, but the studio we were in didn't have enough booths, I said I'd prefer to just sit on the floor next to the drums, but then I'd have to be DI'd. So I got the SansAmp and I've used it ever since. That's where you'll find me: sittin' in the middle of the floor, headphones on, turning my dials."


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