When I first heard the song "Red Right Hand" 20 years ago I was 15 years old living in Missoula, Montana. It was a gateway into the music of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds and eventually The Birthday Party, Crime and the City Solution, PJ Harvey, Rowland S. Howard, Anita Lane, and the solo work of Mick Harvey. To this day I am fascinated by this vast network of artists and more often than not, Mick Harvey's involvement is the common thread. His presence is a far reaching and underlying current that among other things serves as an important documentation of a music scene or movement. When listening to Harvey's solo records, there is a dimensional quality that seems to suggest a physical environment. This can be traced to his collaborative work as well, providing other musicians with a productive atmosphere in which to interact and thrive. Combined with Nick Cave's intensity and narrative style of songwriting, this sense of place was instrumental in the telling of a complete story. On the albums of Rowland S. Howard in which Mick Harvey was involved, we are given the most intimate existing recordings and clear portrait of Howard as a solo artist. The same could be said for his collaboration with Anita Lane which yielded some of the only existing flashes of this talented songwriter. Harvey's style of creating gives evidence of a musician who has an instinct for moving in a forward direction and elevating whatever project he is working on without over-handling it. Since leaving The Bad Seeds in 2009, Harvey has released two solo albums, recorded and toured with Einsturzende Neubautens' Alexander Hacke for their project, "The Ministry of Wolves", and collaborated extensively with PJ Harvey on her albums Let England Shake, and The Hope Six Demolition Project. A massive thank you to Mr. Harvey for agreeing to this interview and for offering some insight into his process.
Some of your past collaborations are with people who seem to possess a sort of unhinged wild creativity but perhaps not the ability to fully realize it. How do you help channel this in a constructive way?
I just work on their ideas with them. All such creativity, or most of it, finds its course eventually. I suppose on some level I have helped realize a lot of creative work which may otherwise not have seen the light of day but it’s hard to work out which or how they would have been without me. It’s also possible I have straightened out some more eccentric presentations in the past but I would hope not. I like to allow the extremities to flourish and perhaps certain people choose to work with me because they know this will be the case.
There is a perception that you were a grounding force in The Birthday Party and Bad Seeds. Did this give you a stronger sense of your role in the bands? Did it ever impede upon your own creativity?
My role in both bands grew quite unexpectedly. At first I was just playing guitar in The Birthday Party and writing the occasional piece of music. As time went by and we wanted more artistic control over the production of our recordings I had a stronger role to play as it seems I have a reasonably good ear. Then I gradually took over management responsibilities and in the end was writing much of the music for Nick’s lyrics. None of these things were in any master plan of mine - they just happened over the course of the years. Once the Bad Seeds began I suppose I just fell into similar roles with the
production and management but less so with writing the music. Nick seemed to want to guide the direction the music was taking after The Birthday Party and that was fine with me. All those new responsibilities had come to me by default. I’m quite happy to just be involved in playing and arranging the music.
Of course. In fact, even when people find out who is playing which guitar part in The Birthday Party they are surprised. I mean, there are usually 2 guitars on most songs up to and including Junkyard. Sometimes I’m playing some other instrument and after Junkyard I moved to the drums but I have the feeling people listen to old Birthday Party albums and assume Rowland is playing all the guitar parts, which is not the case. As for general unconventional elements……you’d have to point them out to me one by one and have me identify them. I suspect these are also the product of collaboration in most instances.
Anita Lane had a unique voice in the scene and her solo albums are fantastic but she is still largely unknown. From an outside perspective her artistic trajectory could be compared with that of Nico's solo work and involvement with the Velvet Underground. Do you think that those
albums will ever generate a greater swell of interest?
It would be nice if her work had more recognition but she is her own worst enemy in that regard as she has absolutely no interest in promoting her work or having any public profile. Sadly, this affects the level of awareness around an artist and their work. I’m still hopeful of reissuing ‘Sex O’Clock’ and perhaps such a reissue would generate new interest and awareness. It can always happen.
Is the reception of an audience a consideration when you are working on a song or is it counterproductive to think about it?
It rarely comes into my thinking or that of people I am working with as far as I am aware. There are occasions where it might cross one’s mind but I suspect that would be more disturbing than informative. To be honest I have no idea what people like about my music and never really have so I can keep on creating in a state of blissful ignorance. I know what I like about it so I just follow that.
When working with another artist, do you find it important to have your style or influence identifiable in the result of the collaboration?
It’s almost always there - it’s hard to stop it getting in there. I’m not a slick professional session musician.
What effect did having an audience present for the creation of PJ Harvey's latest album have? Was there ever a sense that you were performing during the recording process?
I think it made us focus more on what we were doing. And, yes, sometimes there was an awareness the audience was there which made the whole situation have some connection with a performance.
What are some of the typical things that you have to overcome in order to complete a song? Is it different each time or do you always encounter similar obstacles?
Mostly one hopes the music just falls together in a natural way and has that immediacy that makes music so beautiful and intangible. This actually happens quite a lot in my world. Sometimes one struggles to make a song what it should be - in those cases it can be any of hundreds of things which create the problem. Oftentimes it’s worth the struggle, sometimes not.
Your solo albums are fantastic. Is there a greater sense of freedom when you are working on a solo project?
No, I feel much the same as on any project except I’m only answerable to myself which can be challenging.
On "One Mans Treasure" your cover of "Mother of Earth" following "Bethelridge" is very moving and effective as a sequence. Does a lot of thought go into how the songs on an album relate to each other? Is the track order important?
Absolutely. Much time is spent on sequencing an album. These days much of that work is lost as people make their own playlists or just have a few individual songs. I still put a lot of work into it and continue to assume people will listen to the album I have put together even if it’s not on vinyl.
Do you have routines that you go through to stay practiced up on your instruments or is it ingrained at this point?
I agree with Ginger Baker on this point. I never practice, I just play. However, when one is playing a lot one’s playing gets better and one continues to learn, always, about everything.
Do you enjoy challenging yourself with difficult things to play? Does repetitive practice or playing the same song ever get tedious?
I only challenge myself with difficult things to play if I need to play them. I don’t consider music a sporting event. Repetitive practice and playing the same songs over and over can become tedious, or perhaps tedious is too harsh a word. If I like the song in the first place it’s probably more a case of becoming less interesting over time.
Are there any songs that you could listen to or play every day and never get sick of?
It is sometimes said about musicians that they do it because they don't have any choice. Do you believe this? Could you have chosen a different path?
It’s probably true of some musicians but to put it another way it may be more a case of them being unemployable in any other field. I feel I could have done many different things. In fact I have always asserted I ended up in music by accident and maybe whatever I ended up specializing in would have been by accident. I may yet move on to making films. That possibility is certainly in my head again - more than it has been since the 80s.