Mick Harvey
Part 2: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

The I Magazine
January, 1997

by Mike Gee

Halftime at the chat. To Heaven And Hell has been rumbled and mumbled over. And there's just so much that can be said about film scores and Mick was pretty well spent. Well, maybe not. But Harvey's got too many other convictions not to be nosy.

Remember that video for Nick the Stripper, the Birthday Party and friends cavorting in some sort of Bacchanalian frenzy around a fire: Nick the animal, bare chested, the mob in and, mostly, out of focus. Peculiarly, that video still sums up the urgent, spirited, magic of Cave and the Bad Seeds. Harvey is there, amid it all.

Earlier, the Boys Next Door: on a low, low, stage in a small, dank, beer smelling club (nice word for pit) where the carpet stuck to the boot heels and slurped - thssshck, thssshck - with every step, the smoke hanging impotent and acrid. The band a rough, strangled, blur of noise. They were terrible. And potent.

These Boots Are Made For Walking - not there, not in that club - a punked out stomp. Chant, chant.

Smacked out junkies hang off the edge of the pack mauling the tip of the stage. They weave to their blood's magic as the dog's howl and bay at the motley rabble heaving waves of dissonance to the swell of their deranged vocalist - who can't sing. Not a note.

And there is a violence, palpable violence. It drips of the slivers that make it through the murk. A fight breaks out. It isn't the first; it won't be the last. The band plays on. Harvey was there. He may have been good. Who knows.

A dozen years later, the crowd, 20,000 strong, lit by disposables, sways - back, forth, a drunken donkey of a crowd; far away the sun touches the horizon and disappears to ink, and the chorus of The Ship Song resonates off the back walls of the stands at Fremantle Oval where Australian rules has taken on a brand new meaning. Harvey has a quiet smile on his face.

It is just a year later and there are goths and moths and sloths and deadbeats and drunkards and heads and hippies and punks and skunks; women looking to get laid and guys who couldn't lay anything. There is sex everywhere. Drunken sex, doped sex, bent sex; sex in the air, sex in the hair, sex in the eyes, sex in the grind and bump that quakes through the wall of the Passenger Terminal by the mostly empty docks of Fremantle. It is December, a handful of days before Christmas. The stars shine. The still water catches their reflection.

Inside the Bad Seeds are on a stage way above the ground. Cave has ditched the op-shop jacket, yanked the tie, and is sweating down the microphone stand, a rape and pillage of language streaming and frothing in the battery of precise slothfulness smacking the thousands somewhere in the back of their grey matter. Eyes stare, bodies tremble. They don't dance. You can't dance to the Bad Seeds.

Harvey is a dark shadow mincing here and there, standing stock still, unfurling great chunks of sound that meet fellow chunks from Bargeld and co. Under it all, Thomas Wydler, Die Haut's explosive drummer, pounds mercilessly. Character, attitude and atmosphere collide, as they should, intersect at that zenith which is the moment of catchfire. "Red Right Hand" is a spit - a large glistening gob, a jerk-off, a splatter of ecstatic anger, frustration and sex.

For some it is too much. Loverman is precise violence expressed as compressed emotion set free. A day earlier, Cave's handshake was as limp as the air on a stinking hot afternoon when the storm clouds gather ready to strike. Now he is the storm and for some it is too much. They fall outside, gulping like stranded guppies for air, eyes bugged, minds slugged.

For those reasons it is always worth talking about Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Harvey tells peculiar stories. And yet they are fitting. They know nothing of this thing success that has reared and embraced them. Their Murder Ballads has sold more than 600,000 copies worldwide, twice that of its predecessor Let Love In - and they were so convinced it was crap that they raced off and recorded a new "proper" album to make up for it. Prematurely.

Enter a still well-fleshed Kylie Minogue, once teen bait, now star mate. Nick gets to play sex games with a corpse floating in a still pond in a vaguely Pre-Raphaelite styled video for Where The Wild Roses Grow single and admits later that his thoughts weren't exactly pure. Kylie says nothing. She doesn't have to. They win ARIAs (three) including best song and the single sells the album out of sight.

Mick's droll about it all. "I don't know. I think the success level is always something which is a novelty to me, really," he says. "I don't really take it that seriously. I mean it's very gratifying and it means there's more money there eventually which is all kind of ... it all gets a bit confusing, really."

And he spends a while explaining mostly to himself exactly how, in hindsight, it's easy to understand why that particular ramshackle, raw, collection of death and violence should have hit the proverbial collective nerve.

The killer inside, huh. Or good marketing. They pre-promoted Murder Ballads for six or eight weeks beforehand and had it at mythic - but graspable - concept level by the time it dropped in a pool of vengeance and 'did Kylie and Nick only just sing together' sexual innuendo.

"I know it sounds strange to say, but the success really caught us by surprise. We had no idea the single would be successful at all when we put it out. We had no idea because we don't know about those things really. It was really left as the only song that was the obvious single.

"Kylie agreed, so we thought, well, it's funny too; it's a funny thing to do. I was kind of making jokes about the "Murder Ballads" flop single." There's a rueful chuckle. "So we didn't know it at the time, but it really captured peoples' imagination and that gave the album so much exposure.

"Even then I thought 'oh, everybody's wrong, it'll do the same as the last album'. And then it - what's it sold? 600,000 or something - not like fucking U2 or anything but it's still like 'Oh God, what's going on? Leave me alone'.

"Anyway, WHO is listening to our records? That's what I'd like to know. Stop doing it!" More laughter. "I've been surprised for years about the level of our record sales anyway. What did Let Love In do? That did 300,000 or a bit more and that already seemed ridiculous to me. I just can't relate to that sort of figure. It's meant to mean something, or it does, about the level you're working at - see how confusing it gets. So, yes, I was surprised Murder Ballads' did so well.

"In fact, we really thought people might think it was a piece of trash and we were all ready to release the next album as quickly as possible. We were! We had it all ready because all the songs were written. We were basically ready to go and record it. Then Murder Ballads was so successful, if we'd released another album six months later it would have been adversely affected, we just kind of sat on it and just went 'oh well, we'll record it a bit later'.

"We were really quite ready to rush out to make up for the piece of junk the Murder Ballads was."

Obviously, then the new Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album is finished and scheduled for early '97 release probably in late February. So for the fanatics here's the juice ...

"It's called The Boatman's Call," Harvey says. "Umm, how do I describe it? It's very reduced, it's very sparse, and ... " Minimalist? "Yeah, minimalist. It's actually, as much as people always say it, very different. It's genuinely different." And he chuckles, a private chuckle. "I need some distance from it, to be honest - we didn't finish it that long ago - to figure out what I think about the whole thing.

"Great songs on it though. Really great songs. I think it's a very, very, personal record. I think it's a very, very personal record for Nick, lyrically and stuff. So it's kind of a bit different there." Mick Harvey chuckles again, "Yeah, it really is different." And then he bends to being mysterious and says that's enough about it for now.

About Serge Gainsbourg, he's less so, expressing straight forward delight at both the way the Intoxicated Man collection of Gainsbourg songs was critically received and embraced by the public. Volume two is half done already and he'll finish it off over the summer. "I've got a couple of other things planned for after that too, to be honest, but we'll talk about those later." What about a hint then? "No." Oh alright.

Mick's phone keeps ringing. Other people want to talk to him. "I don't know," he mumbles. "What's wrong with all these people? Haven't they got anything better to do? Whoever you are out there. Stop it. Stop it, now."

Outside, the Bleak City, Melbourne, is living up to its reputation. Inside Mick Harvey is trying very hard to not live up to his.

To the Mick Harvey interview - Part 1: To Have and To Hold


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