Mick Harvey ‘SKETCHES FROM THE BOOK OF THE DEAD’ & INTERVIEW BY IAN JOHNSTON
Copyright ÃÂ© Ian Johnston 2011
On an incredibly hot and sunny late April day, in a hotel near Marble Arch, London, 53 year old Australian Mick Harvey, internationally renowned multi instrumentalist, film soundtrack composer, producer, PJ Harvey collaborator, former member of the Birthday Party, Crime and the City Solution and a founder member of the Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds gave an enthusiastic welcome to Louder Than War for an exclusive interview.
‘Sketches From The Book Of The Dead’ is Mick Harvey’s first fully self-penned album and he is obviously, and rightly, very pleased with the result. The 11-track album was recorded and mixed with David McCluney at Atlantis Sound, Port Melbourne with additional recording at Harvey’s own Grace Lane music room with Mick Harvey (playing most of the instruments) joined by Rosie Westbrook on double bass and J.P. Shilo on accordion, violin and occasional guitar, with Xanthe Waite contributing occasional wraithlike backing vocals.
Mick Harvey has most recently collaborated with PJ Harvey once again, co-producing and playing on her highly critically acclaimed latest album, ‘Let England Shake’. Mick is also a member of PJ Harvey’s band on her continuing world tour throughout 2011. Yet we are here to discuss Mick Harvey’s beautiful and highly emotive ‘Sketches From The Book Of The Dead’ CD. The album, also available as a deluxe edition vinyl LP, is Harvey’s endeavour to write about things that are often left unsaid, a personal attempt to draft the faint impressions of lost friends and family. These include the late, great former Birthday Party/Crime and the City Solution/These Immortal Souls guitarist and singer/songwriter Rowland S. Howard, who died from liver cancer on 30th December 2009. Mick Harvey was one of the pallbearers at Howard’s funeral at Sacred Heart Church, St Kilda, Melbourne, on 7th January 2010.
Harvey’s songs describe what’s left behind, not what has gone before. Drawing upon the great traditions of song stories ”â in folk music, the blues, in the dark American and Australian country songs”â Harvey’s compositions illustrate not only the narrative story of his subjects but also present an indelible impression of that which lives on within us when some close to us dies.
‘Sketches From The Book Of The Dead’ is a daring assessment of an infrequently scrutinized area of the human condition. Harvey has surpassed himself and made a truly distinctive work to rank alongside so much of what he has already achieved in his widely respected three decades of creating music. Looking cool and relaxed, wearing a black leather jacket in the sweltering heat, Harvey was open and helpful during our discussion about the creation of ‘Sketches From The Book Of The Dead’.
You’ve brought the weather with you”Â¦
Mick Harvey: “I always do.”Â
‘Sketches From The Book Of The Dead’ is a very moving and poetic record. You began writing the songs at the beginning of 2007, is that correct?
Mick Harvey: “From memory, yeah. It’s hard to go back and look at the time frame because I wasn’t thinking about it. My time is so fragmented sometimes travelling and touring sometimes. I definitely had some of the songs until I started into the last Bad Seeds project. I know I had about six or seven of them before I started working on Rowland’s (S. Howard) album (his final solo LP, Pop Crimes), so that was in the middle of 2009. No, wait, Rowland’s album we were recording that in late 2008.”Â
When you were writing did you have the theme in mind, as a concept, or did it develop as you were writing?
Mick Harvey: “Well, the thing is, as you know, I’m not really a songwriter, you are aware of that. I keep saying this, but I’m not in the way that some people are songwriters, something they have down historically and something they’ve worked on as central to what they are as an artist. Bob Dylan is a songwriter, I’m not. My work over a long period of time, almost thirty years, was not as a songwriter. Maybe I’ve written half a dozen or ten songs in ten years, you know.”Â
Some of which were featured on your previous Mute solo records, consisting primarily of cover versions, One Man’s Treasure (2005) and Two of Diamonds (2007)”Â¦
Mick Harvey: “Yeah, some of which have popped up here and there. Some of which are still sulking around, twenty years old, that I might drag out some time, much to everyone’s horror (laughs). The idea of where the songs come from, is just something, as I suppose it is when songwriters get interested in a particular subject and start writing about it, was something that was around me, a lot, at the time. For whatever reason. I’m not quite sure why, but these kind of ideas, about people and memories of people, kept coming back to me. There weren’t recent bereavements or anything. It was a fairly open space, but these kinds of ideas about people who are long gone, for the most part, kept coming back to me. And suddenly I found that I’d written two or three songs, which is very unusual for me. I suppose that’s the way for songwriters, when they are thinking about a particular subject matter, then they’ll write about that. Suddenly, I just did it, which is unusual for me, simply the volume of it, two or three songs, made me realise that maybe there was something there. And clearly there was, as there was a thematic subject unfolding. I could sit down and write twenty more. The next question was did I want to do that. And did I think I could do that? There were a lot of questions about it. I think the first two or three songs sat there for a while, while I figured out what I wanted or what I thought about it.”Â
When one reaches a certain age, thoughts about mortality tend to be more prevalent”Â¦
Mick Harvey: “I think they grow gradually, yeah. You become more and more aware of them as you step along. But what I’m observing on the album really is, quite a simple thing in a way, what you carry on with you about other people, and how odd that is what those feelings and memories are”Â¦ It’s almost something that everyone is living with; it’s never really discussed. It was just really interesting me a lot, especially in the way it was quite often different, or unrelated to the relationship that you had with the person when they were around. The actual memories and the things that kept coming back were actually quite different sorts of things. So the songs on the album are never really trying to describe my relationship with people, or explain the true story. What they are saying is here are all the bits and pieces that keep coming back. The funny, odd memories that keep coming back are the ones that I’m living on with. They are very often great things too, they are sometimes quite enjoyable, some of the memories that are there. It’s not all down, or bad stuff. It’s all not, I keep saying this”Â¦ the songs have nothing to with the grieving process or the sorrow surrounding the loss itself. It’s a step beyond that.”Â
The opening track, ”ËOctober Boy’, is obviously about Rowland S. Howard. It points out Rowland’s faults as well as his strengths; was that a difficult balancing act to achieve?
Mick Harvey: “That really is the one song which could have been a raw”Â¦ still emotionally connected with the raw feeling of that loss. That’s the kind of exception, in that way, of the nine songs that are based on the fundamental concept of the record. But as he had asked me to write him a song, indulgently while he was still alive, I felt obliged to do so. The only way I could do it was to be fairly flippant and jokey, almost, about it.”Â
But it’s such a good sketch”Â¦
Mick Harvey: “My guess is that that’s the kind of throw away thing that Rowland would have preferred me to write about him rather than being weighty and bogged down in sentimentality. So, it’s almost meant to be quite funny, actually. Almost making fun of him too, obviously in a very loving way. It is a little thumb nail sketch, it isn’t a definitive assessment of Rowland (laughs).”Â
As is pointed out in the albums very title”Â¦.
Mick Harvey: “The working title I had at home was originally The Book Of The Dead, which sounds pretty weighty. But on the tape that I had, that I was simply recording the songs on as I wrote them, so I didn’t forget them the next day. So on the tape was written, ”ËSketches for The Book Of The Dead’, and bit by bit I realised that maybe that maybe something like that was better than calling it, Book Of the Dead. I must admit I haven’t got much idea what is in the Egyptian or Tibetan Book of The Dead. I have a better idea about the Egyptian but I haven’t read either of them.”Â
I loved the way the guitar style on ”ËOctober Boy’ evoked Rowland’s singular guitar playing style. Was that J.P. Shilo?
Mick Harvey: “Yeah, that was J.P. on guitar. J.P. can copy Rowland’s guitar playing. He played bass on Rowland’s last album. He and I did Rowland’s last album together. I got him to play on some of this. But I knew that he could just copy all of Rowland’s stuff. When Rowland wasn’t up for doing a rehearsal once, J.P. did the whole thing ”â played the parts and sang. It was hilarious. He’s very good at it, yeah. I just put J.P. in behind so you have that sound.”Â
Are you drawing on some Australian country narrative traditions, that I’m perhaps not aware of, as well as blues, folk and figures like Johnny Cash, to which you have alluded to already?
Mick Harvey: “That’s interesting. I was just talking before about Australian musical traditions. They are pretty much a great big melting pot anyway. It’s the odd thing about Australian music and why a lot of Australian bands can step out of being hold into genres but at the same time not being concerned about using elements from other cultures, as perhaps a British band playing the blues might be a bit”Â¦. that’s not a problem in Australia, because it’s just as relevant to playing that as anything else, because we don’t actually have any musical traditions apart from all the stuff that’s come in during the last 200 years. So American music is as relevant as European folk traditions and classical music.”Â
Which all comes to bare on ‘Sketches From The Book Of The Dead’”Â¦.
Mick Harvey: “Well, that’s my musical background. You can use any of those elements you want and preferably mix them up, because that’s actually the reality of the Australian condition. An awful lot of musicians that I know in Australia hate music that is in a strict genre. They find it uninteresting, because its been done and there is absolutely no point in someone from Australia doing music in a strict genre from some other culture; it’s a complete waste of everybody’s time. The imperative seems to be put upon you, as an Australian musician, to make something personalised and unique.”Â
Well, ‘Sketches From The Book Of The Dead’ certainly has that”Â¦
Mick Harvey: “Well, I hope so. I don’t really know. In the end it just becomes your taste, incorporating some of those different musical elements becomes a statement in its self of your intent about where you are. Obviously rock ”Ën’ roll, the whole blues, R&B thing coming out of England in the 60s and from America in the 60s and before, is very important in Australia. But I also think that it is contingent on Australian music to be very engaged with its European background.”Â
I saw going to say that on some of the tracks on ‘Sketches From The Book Of The Dead’, ”ËTo Each His Own’, ”ËThat’s All Paul’ (which outlines the unending ramifications of a driver “rushing through suburban streets”Â) and perhaps ”ËFamous Last Words’ (which a succession of famous last words), that there are little glances back at the series of Serge Gainsbourg covers albums you made back in the mid 90s (‘Intoxicated Man’ (1995) and ‘Pink Elephants’ (1997), on which Harvey translated key Gainsbourg songs into English for the first time, winning praise from no less a personage than Jane Birkin)”Â¦..
Mick Harvey: “Oh yeah? Maybe musically, I don’t know.”Â
As opposed to some of the more country and folk rooted pieces, like ”ËThe Ballad of Jay Givens’, which outlines the story of the suicide of a friend of your father’s?
Mick Harvey: “I supposed it’s kind of like a country song but it’s not very traditionally arranged, like the instrumentation and so forth. The main thing with the songs is that the music was very much dictated to me, in a way. All the songs began with the words because the only way to write the song was to start writing about the potential subject matter. So, it always began with the words; apart from ”ËFamous Last Words’, actually. Which is, of course, quite a different sort of piece, and that’s why it’s at the end. It’s an observation back on the whole piece. Maybe ”ËFamous Last Words’ has a touch of the Gainsbourg in there, a touch of irreverence. I’ve done a video for that, actually. It’s on YouTube and the Mute Channel. It’s got all the people being quoted and others thrown in there for good measure.”Â
I’ll check that out”Â¦
Mick Harvey: “But as I was saying, the starting point of the songs being the words, so then the content of the words so necessarily dictated the kind of atmosphere that I wanted to do the song in. So I’d just look at the words and say, ”ËWell, so how can I sing this so that’s got the right feel.’ So it was a very simple process in a way. It wasn’t like I have to think up a great piece of music. It was like, ”ËIf I sing it like this, it will have the right sense that I’m wanting to convey with the song.’ The music had to sit behind it. The music pretty much wrote itself. I could sing a couple of lines and go, ”ËWell, it’s just those chords’. There was almost like there was nothing to write. That might sound odd but it was almost like musical arrangement behind the words. It felt like I hadn’t really written anything much. (laughs)”Â
The song ”ËTwo Paintings’ refers to the work of the German/Australian artist Gustav Pillig, who died in the mid 1950s. One of his paintings is also on the cover”Â¦
Mick Harvey: “That’s one (points at the sleeve of ‘Sketches From The Book Of The Dead’). That’s pretty out there of me to stick it on the front! A bit revealing but I don’t care.”Â
A lot of his paintings appear to be untitled. I take it that’s the Australian outback?
Mick Harvey: “Well, yes, it’s a very Australian scene. I’m not sure where that is. But there is another Pillig painting inside the booklet, with other paintings by Katy (Beale, Harvey’s partner).
Had you always been aware of his work?
Mick Harvey: “No, no, not really. I was literally given two paintings by him by my uncle, as described in the song ”ËTwo Paintings’, just before he died. My house and studio are just full of stuff he gave me. All the time I’m pulling stuff out and it’s like, ”ËThere’s that he gave me.’ There’s the thing, they were probably responsible for half this album. That really played a part; in their case it was all the possessions, objects that they left me. ”ËTwo Paintings’ is a very simple straight forward song, in a way.”Â
With some of the rest of the album there is an air of mystery about the songs. Is that important to you as a songwriter?
Mick Harvey: “Well I think with each different subject it depended on the subject and whether it was relevant or whether it was irrelevant for who it was meant to be about.”Â
”ËTo Each His Own’, for instance”Â¦
Mick Harvey: “ Yeah. That’s someone who is a fairly major figure. I don’t know how people will interpret that song. I don’t know what they’ll get out of that. It’s all in there. It’s almost like a riddle. My family understood it immediately, but to anyone outside that it is a bit like a riddle. That must have been they way I wanted it to be. There are quite a few songs that didn’t make the album, one in particular which was just too”Â¦ It’s funny that you finally write a couple of songs that are intensely personal, then you eventually realise that it’s a good song but – nobody else needs to hear this song. And there’s a couple I’ve just left them off the album because (laughs) it’s nobody else’s business. That’s actually very important. That (”ËTo Each His Own’) is probably borderline like that too but it’s so obscured, I think, that it could be there and it had a function of putting a level variety into the types of songs and the way they were being presented; rather than all being stories like ballads or something. It was important to me that they weren’t just all narrative songs or weird, obscure songs, that there was a lot of variety in there.”Â
”ËA Place Called Passion’ of course evokes the slaughter and frittering away of young lives during World War 1. Did that song have any influence upon the recent PJ Harvey record? You’d written that before”Â¦
Mick Harvey: “Fortunately, I’d written that song before Polly’s album, before I’d even heard the demos for Polly’s album. She’s heard it, yes. I think she likes the song. I don’t know what she makes of it because I never discussed that I’d wrote it even before I’d heard her demos. We have similar interests there anyway. We’d been discussing good books to read about the First World War, while she was writing the album and went on trips together to the shrine in Melbourne and the Imperial War Museum in London. I’ve been interested in the First War for a long time, so it was odd that she picked my brains about that. It’s odd, but then what she’s used out of that is completely different. That’s a one off song on my record and, again, it’s about a family member, so it’s a personal history. Polly’s record is much more like a reporter’s observation, reporting upon the activities.”Â
Your song, ”ËA Place Called Passion’, carries an indignant tone about the waste of the conflict”Â¦
Mick Harvey: “Well, inevitably, yeah. It was what everyone was left with there. The whole point of the song, in that case, there are a couple of songs were I have to tell the story to get to the point about what is left behind. It’s all about the last verse, because I’ve just got those books. So in order to get to the books I have to tell the whole story. That’s what the song is about, coming across that connection, that information about that loss. It’s about his parents; it’s about their loss. All the details through the story are fairly prosaic, in a way.”Â
If the record wasn’t a cathartic experience what emotion did you derive from making it?
Mick Harvey: “I suppose, the point about it not being cathartic is, as I’ve said before, with the exception of Rowland’s song, which is also deliberately not going into that area, the songs are long after the grieving process. They are really like reflective. But the feelings that are coming up when you are remembering these things are strong; they are strong about people who aren’t there anymore. They are quite moving, the feelings or memories. You are touching back into something that’s gone, so there is an element of it that can be effecting in that way. So that was all, really. If I got that sense that there was something that I touched on, what was affecting the particular memory, then I knew that I had got to the right place with the lyric. If I felt that sense of what was moving about it for me was in the background, and I could sense that I’d got some of it out there, that was it really. Getting the right emotive thing into it”Â¦ and I recognised it, what was in the back of my mind. It wasn’t cathartic; it was kind of representational of what was already in the back of my mind. They are things that I don’t need to get out of my head. I’m very happy to live with those things, it’s not like I have to get rid of them.”Â
Is ”ËHow Would I Leave You’ your song in The Book Of The Dead?
Mick Harvey: “Yes. It’s quite sentimental in a way. I think everyone starts thinking about what they are going to leave behind, especially when you have kids; it’s just something you do. It’s just going with that and trying to take a positive spin on it (laughs). The thing is, it’s got to be fine. The thing is, it has to be fine. Everything moves on.”Â
You must have put a lot of thought into the running order of the record ”â a bit of a lost art these days.
Mick Harvey: “Yeah, well, musicians like myself and people, you are still thinking about it. Sequencing is still really important. “
It runs as a piece.
Mick Harvey: “Well. Polly’s album is like that too. We haven’t given up on sequencing albums yet. We haven’t been put in the position where, ”ËThis doesn’t matter. It’s irrelevant. It’s just a bunch of files on a stick!’ (laughs) I don’t think that will ever happen. If you take an opera, as much as I hate opera, the opera is a piece. When musicians or songwriters make an album, it still has relevance as an album, and people will still come back to it from time to time as an album. So you can still put it out there as a piece of work as intended, in that way. I think that’ll survive.”Â
”ËFrankie T. & Frankie C.’ seems to be the one song on the record that harks back to the Bad Seeds. Would you agree?
Mick Harvey: “Well, it’s hard for me to figure out what parts of music sounds like the Bad Seeds; it’s just me playing. I don’t know if it’s recognisable to other people as the Bad Seeds because it’s just me playing. It’s just my taste and instrumental style, that does exist in the early stuff right through to the ‘Murder Ballads’, my playing style is all over everything, for better or worse.”Â
I was thinking of ‘Your Funeral”Â¦My Trial’.
Mick Harvey: “Well, that’s because it’s more me than any other album: we had a one armed drummer (Thomas Wydler had severe tendonitis in his wrist), Barry (Adamson, bass player) had left and Nick didn’t think he could play any keyboards because he couldn’t concentrate for long enough. I ended up playing more than half the instruments on the recording. That’s just my style.”Â
What are you working on now? You probably have many different things on the go”Â¦
Mick Harvey: “Well, no, I haven’t. I’m really trying to be as reduced as possible, because in-between touring with Polly and everything and doing this (holds up a copy of Sketches From The Book Of The Dead), I have to be at home with my family as much as possible. I haven’t gone into any new projects and I don’t really intend to this year. I have to back off a bit.”Â
The Let England Shake PJ. Harvey tour is pretty extensive, isn’t it?
Mick Harvey: “It’s broken up a lot. We have two weeks on and then five weeks off. But then that’s just as well, because I’m actually physically away from home for two or three weeks”Â¦ the absent father, which is not that ideal. Trying to fit in my own stuff is going to reduce that time even further. My intention is when I get home, apart from when my son is at school, I’m just around, which means I don’t have much time to do anything, which is fine. Touring with Polly has been really fantastic; the shows are kind of amazing. I’ve really been enjoying playing at those concerts. They are very challenging, for me. It’s a small band and we are working real hard. It sounds incredible, I think. The guys playing with Polly are great. I’m singing all night.”Â
Much harder work than the Bad Seeds?
Mick Harvey: “Oh yeah, much. There is that big band thing with the Bad Seeds, that you can kind of hide in there. Not as much hard work as it was in the 80s.”Â
‘Sketches From The Book Of The Dead’ is out on Mute on 2 May 2011.
Mick Harvey plays at XOYO on 5 June ”â his first gig in the UK since 2007. Tickets are ÃÂ£15 and available from:
Copyright ÃÂ© Ian Johnston 2011