Meet: We chat to Mick Harvey (The Birthday Party, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds) about wild characters, leaving the Bad Seeds, mortality and pride

Feature Photograph: Matthew Ellery

Mick Harvey, founding member of seminal and legendary bands, The Birthday Party and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, has made a profound and lasting contribution to indie music. His ability to write and co-write some of the classic songs of these bands have only been matched by his cool and collective demeanour – a steadfast hand at the tiller in bands containing the most explosive personalities (Tracy Pew, Rowland S Howard and of course Nick Cave). Since leaving Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Harvey has not been idle – releasing solo albums (including a luminescent Gainsbourg series), writing screen music,  collaborating with Amanda Acevedo and playing live.

Harvey is about to release his first solo album in years entitled ‘Five Ways to Say Goodbye’ and on the eve of the release of the new album and departure for an extensive European tour, I caught up with him for a wide ranging chat via Zoom.

I started off by joking that I had recently interviewed Blixa Bargeld and Kid Congo Powers in the last few weeks and with this interview I only needed Thomas Wydler to collect the whole deck of the mid 1980s Bad Seeds. We chatted about the changing line up at that time, trying to work out who was in and who was out and I mentioned seeing the line up in Selinas in 1985. This lead to a discussion on the unpleasant experience of that band’s 1985 tour of Australia with Screaming Jay Hawkins and whether Harvey’s observations on that man’s unpleasant character could make him vulnerable to libel charges from the man’s estate. Needless to say, Backseat Mafia won’t test the waters in our current litigious times.

I professed a curiosity about Harvey’s relationships with some wild characters during his career: noting his staid almost conservative appearance at the back of the stages that he shared with larger than life characters such as Tracy Pew, Nick Cave, Rowland S Howard and the like. Was this carried off stage or was Harvey as dissolute as the rest of them when the lights came back on?

The way we were on stage was just the way we were walking down the street. The stage thing and the off the stage thing were different environments obviously but that on-stage thing of people being the centre of attention or wanting to be seen or perform, none of those things came particular naturally to me. I’m interested in playing the music and that thing about being on stage is because that’s what you have to do – play live. If I could put a little screen around me, I’d be happy (laughs).

Certainly Rowland, Nick and Tracey didn’t feel like that. All bands have a mixture of feelings like that – whether they are comfortable on stage or being in the spotlight or whether they would rather be in the background and just making music. Obviously I would err on the side of the latter choice!

I pondered if this extended to infamous level of ingestion of illicit substance his fellow band members were famous for. Harvey cannot hide his disdain for this, noting he wasn’t like that:

That was people’s lifestyles in a way, or the way they were choosing to conduct themselves in public and in their lives in general. I wasn’t really indulging in that sort of thing which spilt over into public performances sometimes. It sometime impacted on the live performances in all manner of ways – sometimes very positively – a lot of the times because it gave them a real edge and that level of excitement was very appropriate for the band and what we were trying to do, but sometimes it impacted very negatively if people couldn’t actually play properly enough to present what we were meant to be presenting.

It was part of the chemistry of the group, literally and figuratively. Although maybe that’s the same thing (laughs). It’s all a big chemical mix-up. I don’t think people are allowed to do that anymore – it’s frowned up on. Although Brian Jonestown Massacre seem to be out there! (laughs)

Harvey goes on to reminisce about how it was acceptable for bands to be out of it all the time and how he didn’t get the impression Jim Morrison was ever sobre. Harvey surmised that punk introduced the removal of the barriers between the public and private persona.

Speaking of punk, I wondered how Harvey felt as a seasoned musician playing with guitarists like Blixa Bargeld and Kid Congo who couldn’t really play their instruments. Harvey was very postive:

I was self taught – I’m not someone who has a high regard for someone who has technical proficiency with musicianship – there are aspects that I appreciate but I appreciate it when someone can make something really interesting musically – something that came out of that scene was seeing being self taught as a badge of pride. The idea was that you made something original or unique and interesting. There’s a foundation for creating great music.

Harvey then commented on some guitars he could see on the screen in the background and I joked I made a vague attempt to be a musician. Harvey laughed – as do we all – and noted that there were real musicians and then there are people like us who are just trying our best.

I tentatively raised a question about why after so many years did Harvey leave Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Harvey was quite happy to go in to the details.

There were a number of things so it’s quite a complex story in a way. You have to go through a number of years in the whole process. In the late nineties I could have quite well not continued with the band as I felt it had run its course and I had enough of it. After ‘The Boatman’s Call’ I felt things switch around when Nick wanted to be more in control of arrangements which was obviously my largest job in the band I was always doing the arrangements, doing the production in the recordings.

There were personal things even then in the late nineties and the fact that there was a little shift in my role in the band happening. We got over that but there was a little hiatus in the band for a couple of years while Nick went off to Arizona and got married and did things like that and we were expecting his return. Somehow we made up and continued with the next couple of albums and it all seemed good again but things were shifting all the time – I was in Australia all the time and I was never there doing the initial demos and stuff and I became further and further on the outer. Then there were other projects like Grinderman going on and Nick started doing a lot of stuff with Warren (Ellis).

Somehow it arose that we were on tour again and I was the boss again and I think Nick started thinking ‘well, why are you the boss? We are perfectly fine the rest of the time without you’ (laughs). So there was a big shift in the balance of the relationship and I just felt eventually I just felt like I had to get out of there and that I’ve been in service to somebody else’s career for long enough.

Harvey goes on to talk about his work with Nick, P.J Harvey and others and about how it doesn’t matter how significant one’s contribution was, it was always the collaborator who owned the songs and got the accolades and rewards – you don’t own it anymore, it becomes (their) possession. Harvey’s approach is not one grounded in bitterness or jealousy: it is the acceptance that as a musician and a producer, he has given a lot to the industry but has always been a powerful force in servitude to powerful personalities. He summarises his departure from the Bad Seeds:

I just needed a change, and my son was pretty young and I was being dragged out on lengthy tours and an expectation of being present at all the recordings over there (in Europe). Eventually Nick and I weren’t getting on very well and we just decided it was better if we change things up. And then we went made quite a good album after that! (laughs)

‘Dig, Lazarus Dig!’ was indicative of how things were – there were a lot of very good songs on that album but they all got shoved down the end of the album to my mind.

I mentioned at that point that this one one of my favourite Bad Seeds albums.

Oh yeah? That’s good, but there were a couple of songs on that album that were rubbish – hopefully not the ones you like (laughs), like ‘Today’s Lesson’. There’s a couple that I think are really bad…and they were all positioned up the front of the album. There were some really good songs but they were pushed down towards the second half of the album – if you listen they are the more traditional Bad Seeds sound.

The indication was to me that Nick just wasn’t interested in that any more. He wanted to move on from that, which is fair enough too – I get that. Why wouldn’t you want to change from a sound that was coming from other people. This is one of the reasons he wanted to finish up The Birthday Party – he didn’t have much control over the sound of the music, it was coming from the band – the musicians – he was just singing. There were a lot aspects of what I was driving in the eighties and nineties which Nick wanted to move away from. It was the old Bad Seeds stuff which he didn’t have much control over – largely because he was on drugs most of the time (laughs). He was very happy for me to be creating these soundscapes and arranging all the stuff and playing a lot of the instruments but it was my sound in a way, a lot of those Bad Seeds songs. It’s something that once he was more lucid 100% of the time, he wanted to move away from and do his own thing.

We reminisced about the late great Rowland S Howard and I mentioned that I had seen Harvey on drums for one of Howard’s last ever gigs at the All Tomorrow’s Parties gig on Cockatoo Island, curated by Nick Cave. We agreed it was a moving gig, with JP Shilo on bass, playing as a trio.

With time running out (damn you Zoom!) I quickly acknowledged Harvey’s recent celestial work with Amanda Acevedo, and Harvey was full of praise for this collaboration. He noted that the album (‘Phantasmagoria In Blue’) was a twin, in a way, to his new album ‘Five Ways To Say Goodbye’ because they were both recorded at the same time, both using the same strings ensemble recorded back in March 2022.

We got the strings together across six days and the albums are very connected because I was working on them at the same time and then effectively I had to decide to finish and focus on one, and I went with ‘Phantasmagoria In Blue’ with Amanda first.

We turn to the new album and I wondered how Harvey selected the tracks – a mix of originals and others.

I had a couple of originals, ‘Heaven’s Gate’ and ‘The Art of Darkness’ as well as ‘A Suitcase in Berlin (a translation and reworking of Marlene Dietrich’s 1950s ode to Berlin, ‘Ich Hab’ Noch Einen Koffer in Berlin’) and there were a couple of others that I had around and that I was tinkering with. I realised that that the general themes of the songs were about farewells, things moving on, goodbyes, ending things which gave me a guidance as to what else I could look at doing. Once I had decided thematically what I was looking at, it wasn’t hard for me to find other songs that fitted and that were songs that I liked anyway. Songs like ‘Dirtnap Stories’ , Ghost Ships and ‘Alone With The Stars’ were songs I had a very deep connection with but hadn’t thought to do versions of them, but those songs were very important and fitted with the theme. I found a theme and then I found a repertoire to expand the themes!

I noted Harvey’s comment that many of the artists covered had died and ponder whether Ed Kuepper, Lo Carmen should feel nervous. Harvey laughs and adds Neil Young to the list. He then discusses the artists covered on the album who have passed – friends of his – Chris Bailey, David McCombe and Bruno Adams – and poignantly expresses his desire to shine a light on these great Australian songwriters through this album, songwriters who might not be that well known universally but deserve to be so. Harvey says he considers McCombe, for example, to one of Australia’s greatest songwriters. I mention how I loved his version of ‘Ghost Ships’ and he notes that he had covered ‘Photograph’ from the album (‘A Little Madness to Be Free’) and could have easily done a few more – it’s such a great record.

Chris passed away about two years ago and it seemed appropriate to bring that in – it was the last song on the album and I did it in very much a different way – The Saints had this big production with brass and strings and the band powering through probably about 5BPM faster than they should be and it’s a fantastic recording engineered by the legendary Tony Cohen of course. I thought the obvious thing to do was just to flip it and look at the song differently and approach it in a different way and reduce it down to the bare bones.

I note that this approach deconstructs the song and Harvey then talks about a big bugbear of his – the way people look down on bands that cover versions of songs. He doesn’t understand why people say doing cover versions is a cop out and that it is only valid to do originals. He strongly defends doing covers, saying it allows you to choose the music you want to present in the way you want to present it, as an acknowledgement and with respect. As a songwriter, it is clear that Harvey values music as a living organism that continues to give just as much value in other’s hands.

I note that a major thread running through this and Harvey’s other solo work is that of mortality, and wonder if he think of this a lot. Harvey’s response is very considered and poignant, given the many friends and musicians close to him who have died too early.

I do, I do. I think I always have. There are a lot of people left along the way and amongst musicians in particular there is a high attrition rate. I suppose a lot of them are unstable and and they use a lot of nefarious substances and have damaged their systems or have overdosed or do weird things. There is a high attrition rate and there are so many people who have just shuffled off too early so it’s something that I am keenly aware of – something that has been placed in front of me repeatedly where I have had to look at it and think about it. It just keeps happening to people I’m connected with. And I think at a higher rate amongst musicians than the rest of the community or society – it just has to be (laughs). Hardly anyone gets to seventy.

Zoom intervenes and we agree to finish off our chat the next day.

We resume our conversation. Harvey is in the midst of packing up for his European tour and has lots of last minute preparations and closes off the discussion about mortality by noting the loss of friends and family was covered in his album ‘Sketches from the Book of the Dead’, but has continued as a theme in his solos work:

That kind of thing is very present in my life and seems to come around in a flurry when you’ll have three or four people all at once.

I ask if there is anyone Harvey misses the most and he is reluctant to specify anyone, acknowledging there are some he misses more than most. Harvey eventually concedes that the loss of Tracy Pew was hard because he was so young when he died, but it was so long ago. In terms of mortality, I wonder is there is anything that Harvey would like to be remembered for. He laughs:

I don’t really think about that – I imagine that at some point in time it will all be forgotten so you don’t really worry. You’re working in the arts for the present and for the impact you could have now and for what you can do to contribute, to help people with their condition and get through life. You need to give something to others by being yourself. Some people will respond to it – it doesn’t matter if its five or five million: it doesn’t really matter. You need to put you what matters to you. A lot of what I do is not particularly populist or attempting to be popular at all (laughs) but it’s what I feel like presenting and I know it means a lot to some people, and if it continues to be worthwhile to people after I’ve gone, that would be nice. If what I’ve produced continues to be of value to some people, then that’s a good thing!

I press Harvey – who was being very humble about his contribution to music – by asking surely there is a sense of pride in being part of bands like The Birthday Party?

…or even early Bad Seeds, yes. A lot of things I’ve been associated with….even the world of Spotify where you can go on it as an artist and there are annual statistics for bands of listeners and I thought it would be about three but it was several hundred. I was quite shocked, actually. But you asked about pride about The Birthday Party and it is really great to have been associated with things that have impacted people and other artists have been influential. It’s an unusual thing to have been involved with, exciting. (laughs) I’m a bit wary of pride though – doesn’t it come before a fall, they say. When I see a footballer say ‘I’m proud of what I did today’ I say nooooo – it makes me feel quite uncomfortable (laughs). But it’s quite exciting, it feels like a very positive thing thinking the stuff that you do could have some kind of impact, so I feel good about it. And unfortunately it probably does touch on aspects of being proud (laughs).

We agree to steer clear of the word pride (which I obviously haven’t done). Harvey is humble – he says he doesn’t want to end up in a self-congratulatory spiral. The thing is, his work quite clearly speaks for itself. Having let his cat in which had been scratching at his door, we say goodbye, Harvey expressing a final desire to play in Hobart, maybe for Dark Mofo.

Harvey is about to embark on an extensive tour of Europe (see below). It will be just him, Amanda Acevedo and a string section and he looks forward to playing – details below. He thinks he will do some more gigs in Australia later this year – with the costs of gigging as it is, he threatens to play before thirty people in his own gallery – let them come to me!

‘Five Ways To Say Goodbye’ is out on Friday, 10 May and you can pre-order here or through the link below.

Mick Harvey Tour

14 May – Antwerp (BE), Legendarische Dinsdag Club – short cabaret set

16 May – Valencia (ES), 16 Toneladas

17 May – Barcelona (ES), Sidecar

18 May – Madrid (ES), Sala el Sol

19 May – Zaragoza (ES), Bombo Y Platillo

23 May – Stockholm (SE), Bar Brooklyn

24 May – Copenhagen (DE), Loppen

25 May – Paris (FR), Petit Bains

26 May – London (UK), Omeara

29 May – Coimbra (PT), Nereida Fest (free concert)

31 May – Leiria (PT), Teatro José Lúcio Da Silva

1 June – Espinho (PT), Auditório de Espinho – SOLD OUT

2 June – Espinho (PT), Auditório de Espinho

7 June – Milan (IT), Arci Bellezza

8 June – Brno (CZ), Mersey Gathering

11 June – Florence (IT), Scandicci Nazionale Park

12 June – Fano (IT), Bagni Elsa

13 June – Bologna (IT), Frida Parco 

14 June – Pula (HR), Rojc Community Centre

Latest ticket links can be found here

Feature Photograph: Matthew Ellery

Previous Track: 'Stay Gold' - Restless Leg unveil another sprightly powered pop single and announce album and tour.
Next Live Review: Jake Bugg - G Live, Guildford 01.05.2023

No Comment

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.