It’s mid-afternoon and we’re in the near-deserted Espy, right around the corner from where the Crystal Ballroom used to be where, 30 years ago, The Birthday Party played its final show. I’m trying to get a word in among old friends and co-conspirators of the late, post-punk anti-hero, Rowland S. Howard. They’ve been doing interviews all day, but their enthusiasm for Howard’s work knows no bounds. They riff, they finish each other’s sentences and top each other’s punchlines. Between partner Genevieve McGuckin, brother Harry Howard and long-time band mate Mick Harvey, everyone in the room is featured alongside Howard on the new compilation, Six Strings That Drew Blood, and will be performing at the two Pop Crimes tribute shows later this week as part of the Melbourne Festival. “Everyone except you,” Harry points at me.
After existing as a fringe figure in the Australian musical consciousness for most of his life, Howard passed away in 2009. As is the way of these things, it’s only since his passing that he has attained legendary status.
“This whole thing is hopefully going to open people’s eyes and give them something from every part of his life,” says McGuckin, with whom Howard formed These Immortal Souls. “And, you know, earn him some of that respect and admiration that he didn’t get during his life.”
Six Strings That Drew Blood covers Howard’s whole 30-year career, from Shivers, his utterly compelling (and most enduring) song, written when he was 16, through to tracks performed by The Birthday Party and These Immortal Souls, to The Golden Age of Bloodshed, the final track of his final album, Pop Crimes. “We wanted as strong an overview with as much of a sense of continuity as possible,” says Harvey, who worked with Howard on and off during those 30 years.
“Nothing happens in a bubble,” adds McGuckin. “It’s not just one band and then another band.”
There were setbacks – recordings of Howard’s first band, The Young Charlatans, were deemed too rough to include in the compilation, meaning that much of his early songwriting work for The Boys Next Door and The Birthday Party is represented by band mate Nick Cave’s vocals – but across three decades and dozens of collaborators, his guitar and, once it finally emerges, his voice, cut through it all like a blade.
They did manage to source a live version of Shivers, from 1999, to open the compilation. “It was important to get one with Rowland singing,” says Harry. “Rowland had a few… light-hearted criticisms of Nick’s version,” McGuckin adds. “He thought he was hamming it up.”
I ask, expecting a disagreement, if there is a single, quintessential Rowland S. Howard song. Surprisingly, it’s not a hard decision. “Crowned sums it all up somehow,” says Harvey, and everyone immediately agrees. Crowned, a full-blooded massacre of a song, closes the first disc of the compilation with nine minutes of crooning doom. It’s not hard to see why they consider it archetypal Rowland S. Howard. Did he make a conscious effort, then, to project this brooding image?
“He just didn’t write songs when he was happy,” explains McGuckin. Harry cuts in: “He thought he was writing good songs, rather than considering how gloomy they were.” Harvey: “Songs that had some potency to them, that were about important things.” McGuckin: “He said once that you either write the blues, or Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah.”
Like the compilation, the live shows are a celebration of the versatility and acerbic tone of Howard’s work, performed by the people who worked alongside him. “I think a lot of people probably misunderstand it and think it’s some tribute night, and it might be dodgy,” says Harvey. “But wherever possible, it’s the actual people. It’s the real sound.”
“It’s very emotional,” says McGuckin. “At times I find myself playing and thinking ‘where’s Rowland?’ But it’s wonderful, and the whole process is so much fun, because it was all the people that played with him. We’re his friends.”
Five years after his death, Rowland S. Howard’s days of obscurity are at an end, with his influence being cited by everyone from HTRK to The Horrors.
“There were years when people thought Rowland disappeared, but he was playing every week or two at the Public Bar or the Town Hall. Twenty people might come, but he’d keep playing. I loved that about him. He kept playing no matter what. Now, suddenly, everyone is claiming to have been one of the 20 people.”
Harvey, McGuckin and Harry Howard perform as part of the Pop Crimes show tonight at the Melbourne Festival Hub. Six Strings That Drew Blood is available in a two-CD version on Friday October 24, and in a deluxe four-LP version next month.