The Driving Thing of It: A Conversation with Mick Harvey
Mick Harvey’s long music career started in Australia in the late 1970s, where he and his buddy Nick Cave formed the band The Boys Next Door. That band later became The Birthday Party, and they moved base camp from Australia to Europe, finally landing in West Berlin around 1983. The Birthday Party broke up, but Harvey and Cave continued forward, with Blixa Bargeld, to become the founding members of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds.
Harvey has performed with many other projects including Rowland S. Howard, Crime and the City Solution, and PJ Harvey. Mick Harvey left Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds in 2008, but has continued to work on remastering and reissuing a large chunk of the band’s back catalog.
In 1996 he released his first solo record, Intoxicated Man. The tracks were all Serge Gainsbourg songs translated into English. In April 2017 the fourth and final installment of his Gainsbourg tribute records was released. Intoxicated Women features songs and duets written by Gainsbourg for women singers.
I sat down with Harvey while he was on tour with PJ Harvey at a swank hotel in West Hollywood.
The Rumpus: You actually turned me onto Serge Gainsbourg in 1996. I was flipping through records at the record store and I saw Mick Harvey and I was like, Wow, a Mick Harvey solo record. The record was, of course, “Intoxicated Man” and I went and listened to it over and over and I didn’t even know they were Serge Gainsbourg songs until I read the liner notes.
Mick Harvey: In America, for a lot of people, it was a first exposure to some of his stuff. It wasn’t specifically the purpose of it, obviously you have a mixture of purposes when you’re working on anything. You don’t have one single idea of what it is or what it could be. First and foremost I was doing it for myself. You always have to have that primary starting point of view. You wonder why people are really doing anything if they aren’t doing it for themselves. The fact that it has helped people find his work is nice, but I wanted them to find my work while they were at it, too, you know what I mean?
Rumpus: Well, I came at you first, and then it was Serge.
Harvey: In England there was a little more knowledge about his stuff, probably because “Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus” was a big hit there in 1969. It was probably a number one hit, so people knew about him, but when you talked to people they actually didn’t know very much about him other than he was some sleazy Frenchman.
Rumpus: And he sang “Lemon Incest” with his daughter.
Harvey: Yeah, they knew two or three songs about him. And I really didn’t know much about him at all, so for me there was a lot of great songs there, really amazing material that was kind of lost to the English-speaking world or kept from them by lack of access because he was French.
Rumpus: So when did Serge Gainsbourg come on your radar?
Harvey: In dribs and drabs over a long period of time. I think “Je T’aime” was also a hit in Australia, or it was very known, then somewhere along the line I was aware.
I was in Berlin; you know, Berlin in the mid-1980s, it was a real sort of meeting point for disaffected people from all over the world who wanted to be somewhere where there was no nation. It was like a stateless city for a lot of inhabitants, not for Germans obviously. So I had this French friend there and once we got start to talking he said, “Ah, I have the whole box set and I’ll make you a cassette.” So he did a compilation cassette for me, which was fantastic. It was in high rotation for quite a while. A lot of songs were really entertaining and you can almost get an idea because there were bits of English thrown in there. After a while I just thought, I’d love to know what these songs are about. I just wanted to investigate that and try and expose that.
Rumpus: Was that the passion to move forward on creating a record of his songs translated into English?
Harvey: The passion? I suppose you can describe it that way. It became the driving thing of it. Okay, let’s try to show the songs for what they are. It’s made a huge difference to people. Even Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth, he dropped in to the studio and there were only a couple of percussion things we needed to do. So I said, “Get out there Steve; go and do the tambourine on that so I don’t have to do it.” While he was in there he heard “Coffee Colour,” the song on Delirium Tremens, and he said, “Oh wow man, I just always thought it was about a café.”
That’s the point. What are the songs about? Then, when he heard what it was about, it was like, “Oh, that’s a song to a woman.” That’s a really entertaining lyric that goes further and further into metaphors about coffee and women and typical Gainsbourg lyrics where it ends up being all disaffected and about something else than what it started as. And he just thought it was about a café, Couleur Café. And that’s what I mean, you really don’t know what the songs are about so it’s really nice and I know it must be a revelation for people. Even though there’s things being lost in there, especially the poetry itself is the thing that’s lost in the translation.
Rumpus: In the context of culture?
Harvey: Exactly. That’s where the combinations of words and how they work together in the subtlety of word choice is always so specific to a language and a culture you just can’t possibly carry. You have to do it in your way and also try to keep retaining all of the fundamental things, which is hard because they just don’t relate—the English language and American culture have a different sense and a different aesthetic, so immediately the poetry is going to be different. Everything else I try to keep: the meaning, the feel, the intention, the meter in the rhyme.
For me when I’m translating them and putting them into English and finding a way to do it, it’s like a revelatory experience as well. It’s very strange. Sometimes if you do a literal translation it also doesn’t quite make sense and then when you start finding ways to rhyme it and put it in then suddenly you start seeing where the meaning is too because literal translations are not actually accurate.
Rumpus: You can’t just go into Google Translate.
Harvey: It comes out all wrong and you’re just like, what does that mean? And then once you start shaping it you go, “Oh, that’s what he’s saying.” You look at the French and the translation doesn’t quite say that; you just have to shape all of that. And as it comes up the strength of the idea starts revealing itself once the English form starts resolving. It’s a fun thing to do. It’s a lot of hard work, it’s like chipping away, sort of, like digging in an excavation you know, an archaeological dig, brushing away the dirt and saying ‘there it is!’
Rumpus: Even when you’ve covered other artists, like Mano Negra’s “Out Of Time Man,” and all that stuff, I listen to the originals and most of the time I like your version better. When you’re choosing music to cover do you pick it up and think, That’s great, but I can add a different punch to it?
Harvey: The whole process of doing the full solo albums, it’s gone through a transition of different things. I suppose decided to start doing it because the songs I was recording I had a strong personal connection with the content from a large cross section of sources. But fundamentally, for the most part, they had to be sort of unknown songs.
So I just started with a list of songs that were important to me personally. And they selected themselves to be the ones which I should do first, and the project just kind of fell into a longterm project. Which is three albums, really, because Sketches from the Book of the Dead is obviously a different thing where I wrote all the songs. I don’t know why; it just happened along the way. On Two of Diamonds and Four they’re sort of based around cover versions, doing interpretations of other songs, interspersed with occasional offerings from me.
People ask me, “Why are you doing covers?” To me it’s not really about that. It’s about presenting music that’s important to you and it’s really not dissimilar to what some of my favorite artists like Johnny Cash and Nina Simone always did. And these days people call them cover versions. They talk about his “American Recordings” as cover versions when really he was always doing that. He was only writing or co-writing a couple of songs an album. Nina Simone was always just doing a huge range of material. She had a massive repertoire and she’d be pulling from this vast repertoire of songs and she really wasn’t a songwriter. She started writing odd songs in the 1960s and more so when she got into the Civil Rights Movement. She was still using other people’s material and interpreting it and stuff, so I think it’s a really important tradition.
Some people are songwriters; they’re driven to do it. It’s kind of thing—like Polly [PJ Harvey], for instance, she’s a songwriter and a writer, it’s what she does, it’s really her main thing. She doesn’t co-write. It’s really important, it’s a thing she does by herself. Dylan is a songwriter, what can you say? I’m not like that. That’s not my thing. I don’t think it was Nina Simone’s thing either. She was about presenting music that was important to her, and ideas and moods and feelings, whether she wrote it or not was completely secondary.
Rumpus: Working with Polly, are you pretty much in the band, and when it’s time to start a new record you get the call?
Harvey: She has asked me to work on every record she’s made since we met, but she could also not ask me at any moment. She’s the boss. That’s good; I like that. The starting point is hard to explain actually because we’re really just close friends, so obviously I have enormous respect for her and I think she’s brilliant. If she asks me to work on her record I’ll think about it.
Harvey: No, I mean if I can. There were a couple of records were I couldn’t be in England in the weeks she needed me there. I really can’t be there so I didn’t play on Uh Huh Her and I didn’t play on White Chalk. I couldn’t be there on the critical time when she needed me to be there. Anytime she asks me if I’m available and I’m available, I’ll be there. She’s my friend, so as a friend I would be there and as a great artist I’m happy to work on anything that she presents to me—if I’m available. [Laughs]
Rumpus: It seems like you have to have that grounding to keep longevity in the music biz.
Harvey: I think she did that kind of early when she saw that it was taking off, she just build a kind of wall around herself immediately.
Rumpus: Which the publicists really don’t want you to do; they want you to spill it all.
Harvey: Yeah, they do. In England probably less than LA, where you need to be parading in front of the paparazzi all of the time; that’s what they prefer. They’re not so much like that in England.
Rumpus: I’ve only lived in LA for a couple of years so it’s been weird. Fortunately I live on the other side of town where it doesn’t feel like this at all.
Harvey: It’s a strange town to live in, when I’ve been here for longer times, a few weeks even it’s like: whoa, not my world, not my kind of a way to approach stuff at all.
You kind of like to have a CV when you say hello; that’s insane, all that stuff. It’s like, “Hi I’m Mick Harvey.” Hashtag Nick Cave. Hashtag PJ Harvey.
Fuck, I can’t do it.
[Mick realizes he forgot to text Bambi Lee Savage who he’s having lunch with after the interview. He shoots her a text and we get back into the conversation.]
Harvey: I just told her to come find us here. I’m sorry we got off subject. Me. Anything else you want to ask me?
Rumpus: When Crime and the City Solution had the reunion, they did five shows in America and I made it to the San Francisco show and the plan was they were going to come back and tour again, and then it never happened.
Harvey: They were trying to make it financially viable and get that happening and it didn’t quite work out. They did some shows in New York too and then they came to Australia and I think it wasn’t working that well financially. It was okay but it was a strain and when it came to a certain point Alex [Hacke] had pulled out and Danielle [de Picciotto] was in the band too and there were certain demands… I think there were financial constraints on the whole thing and it was like they just pulled out. So that’s actually what happened, the money wasn’t going as well as it needed to and a couple of people pulled out. I think Simon [Bonney]’s is working on another album with people, but it will be without Alex and Danielle and David Eugene. I think David kind of bailed as well. He didn’t go to Europe or Australia because he was doing his own stuff and you’ve got that difficulty as well. I think if Alex weren’t there he wouldn’t be involved either because they were like soul brothers or something.
Rumpus: I just remembered, in Wings of Desire you were also in Crime and the City Solution.
Harvey: I’m at piano; you see me for a moment.
Rumpus: So you were in The Bad Seeds and Crime and the City Solution scenes?
Harvey: I was in both. I was the main consultant from the two bands talking to Wim [Wenders] about what we were doing. So I was trying to understand what he was trying to do with choosing the songs and all that stuff so I had a few meetings with him. It was good.
Rumpus: I’ve interviewed him a couple of times and we talked about Wings of Desire. It was really funny because once was a press junket so it was one writer after another, so he was just doodling and answering questions. I said, “Can we talk about Crime and the City Solution and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in Wings of Desire” and he was like, “Oh now we are talking.” He lit up. He stopped doodling and we had a great conversation.
Harvey: Because he’s just a big music fan.
Rumpus: Yeah, he said he would try to be at all of your shows.
Harvey: He’s always got incredibly flattering things to say about us which is always nice; flattery will get you everywhere. Wim is great. I really like him. I speak to him sometimes. You know, he’s just in this crazy Wim Wenders world. I’m not going to be ringing him up and going, “Hey Wim, what are you doing?” We just don’t have that relationship, but he’s called me a couple of times in the last five years about weird things that have come up and we just start talking, you know, like we’re old friends. There’s a kind of trust there and an understanding. It’s quite funny because I bumped into, after all these years, last November I was in Paris doing this strange show and I won’t go into that, but the after show Claire Denis was there (Denis was the first assistant director on Wings of Desire) and I hadn’t seen her since the shoot which was in 1985, so that was really strange. She saw me and said, “Mick Harvey.” I was like, “Claire, hi.” I barely remembered her because I really hadn’t had much to do with her because it’s the film shoot and there’s all this stuff going on. But she was the assistant director and she was like, “You were the one who did everything.” And I was like, “Oh fuck, not again.” Because I was just discussing everything with them all day. I suppose the others were probably all on drugs or some excuse and not aware. I kind of understand a film shoot and I’m very aware of what’s going on. I was aware of what was going on in that situation so I was kind of triangulating everything. I can’t help myself.
Rumpus: From what I’ve understood and correct me if it’s not true, but it seems like through The Bad Seeds you were the centerpiece of keeping things going.
Harvey: For a while, yeah, in different roles or in different emphasis at different times and on some level of what could be considered difficult times with drugs and stuff like that or just chaos. Generally in the group kind of forming itself to a consistent unit, yeah, I was kind of central to unifying.
Rumpus: I never thought there would be such longevity with The Bad Seeds.
Harvey: I kind of did because it was always going to be Nick with a kind of flexible group of people and that you could always be changing the dynamic and shifting and he could keep using that. So quite early on in The Bad Seeds I knew it was something we could grow old with because it had the capability to really evolve, where as something like The Birthday Party was only going to self-destruct. And I kind of knew with Nick that even though from the outside he might have seemed like the next cab-off-the-rank to overdose or not make it and that sort of stuff, he was very focused and he has a deep well of ideas to draw on. You could see already there was much more there than what might have been on the surface and he was obviously already demonstrating what a good writer he could be and it was like as long as he doesn’t blow his mind or something he was just going to keep developing that. So that’s just a kind of ability that he’s going to be able to use all of the time. And that’s the pull of why it works. I always felt it was a longterm thing.
Rumpus: So we’ll wind down, but I wanted to ask you about Rowland S. Howard and the street that was named after him.
Harvey: Oh, the lane. The back lane full of rubbish bins.
Rumpus: Is that what it is?
Harvey: [Laughing] It’s the first thing you see after you sit down; it’s just not right.
Rumpus: Did you play a part in..?
Harvey: Petitioning the counsel? No. I had absolutely nothing to do with that my general comment. It was it’s an insult to name a scummy back lane full of rubbish bins after him. They should rename the main street. [Laughs] They should rename Fitzroy Street. Who cares about the bastard son of the king anymore anyway? I did put in some support and anonymous petitions but I wasn’t actively involved.
Rumpus: I actually bought Teenage Snuff Film when it was actually on clear vinyl, a friend of mine from Australia, when he saw the record he said “How in the hell did you get this; they only pressed five hundred copies?” Then one month a few years ago I didn’t have money for rent so I had to sell it on eBay for $490. When he found out he bought me the reissue.
Harvey: Yeah, so what was it you were getting at?
Rumpus: Oh, I wanted to say I think you did a better version of “Come into My Sleep” [a Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds song].
Harvey: [Laughs] But that has nothing to do with Rowland’s albums?
Rumpus: Right, we were talking about Rowland’s albums.
Harvey: I’m on both of them, yeah.
Rumpus: What was that experience working with Rowland; had you seen him in a while?
Harvey: He’d get in touch when he needed some money, yeah.
Rumpus: Is that what it was?
Harvey: I’d see him from time to time, yeah. When it came down to royalties time it was like, Mick, are the royalties in yet? He was a funny guy; he had an odd sort of lifestyle. It was really good when I’d see him in Melbourne. He was always very chatty and always had some funny stories to tell. But he’d keep to himself. He was a sleep through the day kind of vampiric kind of lifestyle.
How to describe my relationship with Rowland is kind of difficult to, it was always a bit like, there was always underlying tension there because he had always been kind of upset about things after the band [The Birthday Party] broke up, that Nick and I just continued working together. He felt aggrieved about that. I mean, he had a tendency towards embitterment, he really did spend a lot of time feeling sorry for himself. It’s completely fair to say that because he was like that all of the time.
Rumpus: I noticed in the interviews and in the documentary that that vibe was there.
Harvey: Yeah, he was really like that. He was a little annoying. Sometimes I’d think, Well, just get over it, but that’s just the way he was. But we got on fine when we’d see each other and he asked me to work on his records so he obviously wanted me to do something.
And they were great, the recordings were really good. Pop Crimes was really difficult because he was really sick. It was really hard. We spent a lot of time arriving at the studio and sitting there for four hours, so after a few days I just said, “Okay Rowland, I’m coming at 12:30 p.m. in the car, and I’ll pick you up tomorrow,” just to get him into the studio, but then he’d come in and he’d only be able to work for a few hours and he’d go home again, so JP [Shilo] and I just kept working on the album when he wasn’t there as much as we could. But it got done, an album got made, so that was really fantastic and he actually got to write the last couple of songs he needed to write. It took him a while, but you know it was good to get him to do that because it could just as easily not have happened. The guy from the record label was really instrumental in it, too; he just made the whole thing happen.
Rumpus: And smash cut back to Intoxicated Women: this is the final chapter of the Gainsbourg recordings. Was there someone you asked that you didn’t think would be able to do it and you got them and you thought, Oh my god, that happened?
Harvey: No. [Dramatic pause, then laughter] I was hoping to get Anita [Lane] to do a song as well on the record but we kind of had a bit of a blow up on something and it just wasn’t going to work. That was disappointing. Apart from that I just selected people depending on the song, mostly kind of obscure people you wouldn’t have heard of, almost exclusively I suspect.
Author photograph © L.J. Spruyt.