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- Posted on May 6th 2011 6:32AM by Julian Marszalek
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Having spent over 30 years working with Nick Cave with the Boys Next Door, the Birthday Party and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds as well bands such as Crime and the City Solution and PJ Harvey, multi-instrumentalist Mick Harvey has embarked on a solo career that sees him release his fourth solo album, 'Sketches From the Book of the Dead.'
His first completely self-penned release, the album examines the memories that are left of loved ones after the grieving process has ended and it's a collection that demands and deserves complete attention from the listener. Although dealing with an oft-ignored subject subject matter, the album is far from lachrymose as it attempts to celebrate life rather than mourn its inevitable conclusion.
Spinner met with Harvey in London to discuss the album and to look at an extraordinary career.
Your new album, 'Sketches From the Book of the Dead' has a grimly humorous title and is a meditation on death and what it leaves behind. Was that the intent behind the album?
I should imagine that some people will find it difficult and I had to find a way to do it and to get into it. I've got no control over how people receive it but I had to do the project as I conceived it and I knew that it would be hard going for some people but it was never intended to be depressing or unnecessarily difficult.
The subject matter was always going to be inevitably difficult but that's probably what attracted me to it. To me, that made it a challenge and therefore something worth doing. It was entering into a subject that doesn't ever get talked about or looked at very much. It's not about bereavement or loss particularly but about memory and what you take forwards with you and what's been left behind.
The working title was 'The Book of the Dead' and I realised that I couldn't live up to that. What it really is, is a bunch of flashes and scraps and all the bits and pieces that come back about people. It's about when you've gone beyond the point of bereavement and loss. It's got nothing to do with the relationship that I had with them while they were around.
You've said that you weren't looking for catharsis with the album so what were you looking for?
Just to investigate what happens beyond the grieving phase and how you remember funny things about people after they've gone. For me, it wasn't about going into an area of sadness or loss but it's an emotional wave that's moved on to another place. It's something that forms who you are and I thought that it would be interesting to investigate that. It certainly wasn't any cathartic need that I had.
Death tends to throw up more questions than answers, doesn't it?
Well, I think that the point of a lot of the songs too is that they don't attempt to even tell the real story. What I've been left with is bits and pieces of information that I see as correct. It's what's been left with you and that, to me, is really interesting. It's not meant to be an accurate picture.
It struck me on the way to the interview that two-fifths of The Birthday Party have passed away...
With just about every band that I've been with, there's not one that hasn't been touched by death. Epic Soundtracks and Chrislo Haas from Crime and the City Solution have died, Roland Wolf died... but that kind of thing happens all the time; it's sort of become normal, really. It's not, like, bad luck or something; you can't really look at it that way. You keep moving forward and the world keeps moving forward and you get on with your stuff. It's really nice that these people were here with you so part of the album is a veiled celebration of the fact that a lot of these things are still around. That's really good. You grieve for them but you have to keep moving forward. It's just a part of life.
How do you view the early days of The Birthday Party?
We knew that something special was going on but when it all came together it was very... when it coalesced we really played a great show. It was pretty on the edge, sometimes. I always found it very hard to relax before a Birthday Party show because I probably had stage fright but also because I really didn't know what was going to be happening in the next couple of hours. And it could be dangerous! But the best shows was when nothing happened, when it was all pent up tension and energy and we just played. The music really worked and it fell into physically falling apart when someone was too out of it and that kind of upset the balance. It was always about the expectation.
Is there any period of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds that you look back on with most fondness?
Something happened around 'Your Funeral, My Trial' that seems to be a kind of touchstone. That seemed to be a very whole album even though there are a couple of weak songs on there. That just seemed to be an indicator of the potential the band had for the future. 'From Her to Eternity' was wild, crazy mess and some of it's great. 'The Firstborn is Dead' was an experiment in anti-blues and 'Your Funeral, My Trial' seemed to suggest quite a few different possibilities where we could take the music and keep using them in the future. It seemed to throw up a of potential and we knew we were on to something. The first two albums may have been Nick experimenting for the first time as he didn't know what he wanted to do outside of the Birthday Party but we kept returning to aspects of 'Your Funeral, My Trial' on subsequent albums.
Despite a Herculean drug intake at the time of the build up to the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds displayed a work ethic that belied the band's recreational activities during the recording of 'Tender Prey'...
Well, the point about that period in Berlin was that people may have been taking heroin and stuff and drinking and all that but there was also all this East German-government produced speed that was pretty good for working. We were busy, you know? It was the best speed in the world. And the East German government was supplying West Berlin with this stuff in an attempt to undermine the moral fabric of the youth of West Berlin. And that's been established from the Stasi [East German secret police] files that they sent this speed straight from government labs into West Berlin. And it was just the best quality stuff that you could get. I didn't hardly ever take it because the comedown was horrible after being up for two days but guitarist Blixa [Bargeld] and Nick were like [makes snorting sound].
What was the last thing that you learned?
Recently, the most general thing I learned about what I do as musician and what I've really started noticing is something that's always bothered me, actually: what a band does isn't really understood by the public or most journalists. It can't really be written about because it's really quite boring. It's about the chemistry and the feel that you get playing together and there's something about music that's indispensable. It's that chemistry that people actually enjoy listening to all the time and it goes unremarked upon for the most part. It's fundamental to so much great music and it doesn't get a look in.
Mick Harvey's 'Sketches From the Book of the Dead' is out now on Mute Records.
Harvey plays XOYO on 5 June. Tickets are available from the ATP site