Mick Harvey is a man responsible for many things, perhaps more than you will ever know or appreciate. His career now spans forty-plus years and his influence even further. Founding member of the seminal group The Birthday Party with Nick Cave, he went on to be a permanent member of the Bad Seeds until 2009, act as a touring musician and producer with PJ Harvey, record not one, but two albums of Serge Gainsbourg covers, as well as having numerous side projects and groups, producer credits all over town, ten-plus film scores, and a whole load of other conquests. Now into his fifties we see his first full solo album released.
So, what acted as a catalyst for this? “Well it was picking this between several other projects I had going,” replies Mick. So anyone thinking that Mick’s departure from the Bad Seeds had left him twiddling his thumbs back in Australia would be greatly mistaken. As I soon find out, Mick is as active now as has ever been. So, how did he end up choosing this particular project? “Well I realised I needed to pick one, otherwise I could have been mucking about for years with the others. I decided to pick this one as I felt it sent out the strongest message after such a momentous change in my circumstances. It was the only one of those three or four projects that I was writing all the songs, or was a songwriting project. So I decided to do this one first.” While Mick is clearly sending out a message with this album, it must not be misconstrued as a statement of intent - he soon states that he’s unsure if he will ever do anything like this again.
When I asked Mick about being free from collaborative projects for the first time in his life, it seems he is not strictly - currently touring with PJ Harvey on the back on her latest album ‘Let England Shake’ (which he co-produced). Although he states “I’m not tied in to do the next project or anything, as it may not work and she may not even want me, so it’s certainly different from being in the Bad Seeds.” Further reflecting on being his own boss and working solo, “it has been interesting and it’s certainly been liberating. I think largely because of the level of management work I was always involved with [in the Bad Seeds] it’s been a great relief of stress from day one of leaving. It feels very open, it feels like the future has different possibilities that won’t be interrupted by the inevitable next Bad Seeds project. Which is essentially what’s happened with Polly; I knew I could do the touring because I knew I wasn’t going to be involved in the next Bad Seeds project, and it’s very likely that, had I been, I wouldn’t have been able to say yes to that. So it has freed me up, yeah, unshackled… not that I was shackled!” adds Mick.
So, how is life outside of the Bad Seeds, is it something that is missed? “No, I don’t miss it at all. I think I was in it for enough years to get my fill of it. Which is the point I had reached and it was time to move on and I’m really enjoying it. I’ve got a lot more time for the family and generally a lot more time for my own thoughts and ventures.” Later in the interview I press Mick a little further on his departure, and although he is understandably cautious about not making it a focal point, he does elaborate somewhat, “We are still in touch, I saw Warren when Grinderman were out here [Australlia] and I had lunch with Jim, and if Marty is around I see Marty all the time. Hopefully Thomas will guest with me for some shows when I’m over in Berlin in June. So yes, I’m in touch with them, I’m in touch with Nick too by email about things from time to time, you know, it’s all civil and fine. It’s not like we’re refusing to speak to each other.” So, the departure, I cautiously enquire, “I’m fine talking about it, I just don’t want it to be a dominant thing. There is only so much I can say about it, and it’s really fine, you know. It was time to move on, things weren’t going the way I wanted them to be going and I didn’t really feel like I could say what I felt about things that were going on, and that’s not really a good situation. I felt like I was doing more business than music, again not a good situation, and there were several situations like that, and the balance just really wasn’t right. It was time for a change. I think people were a bit surprised, but I honestly think that it’s best for everyone”.
Over the years Mick has worked with an abundance of people on numerous projects, what defines a successful collaboration? “Personally, the lyrics are very very important to me. As much as I’m perceived as an arranger and all that sort of stuff, the lyrical content is absolutely central. My role really is to support the lyrics, to find that central core that will support the lyrics and give them the right setting and the right atmosphere. I guess I could say the best collaboration would be having a writer whose lyrics are good - beyond that it’s having good chemistry with the people you are playing with, and there has been a lot of that through the years. In particular Barry Adamson was amazing in the early Bad Seeds, obviously Tommy (Thomas Wylder) has been there for a long time and is amazing to play with, and Martin Casey is extraordinary to play with, you always get such a great feel going. So a successful collaboration in that respect is that, making the music work with the lyricist, and I’ve had a lot of success with that over the years. Or I feel a have anyway!” Mick laughs.
Mick’s album itself has taken on this template - making the lyrics the fundamental foundations, then building a wall of sound around the core. One thing people will take heed of when listening to Mick’s new album is the texture and tonality of his voice, a smooth baritone croon that radiates charisma and makes one wonder why he hasn’t been singing all his life. Is the singing something Mick grew into over the years? “Very much so, yeah. I think I just started out in the Boys Next Door and The Birthday Party as the guitar player. By 1981 I was co-writing some music occasionally that was getting used, Big Jesus Trash Can, Six Inch Gold Blade and stuff like that. I was quite happy being in the band and playing my role in the band, and the gradual expansion of that was eventually being perceived as the musical director, and then composing soundtracks and all this sort of stuff. I’m not really sure where all that came from to be perfectly honest. It wasn’t what I aspired to be, I was possibly interested in doing soundtrack work, but I think every musician is. So yeah, I have grown slowly and by the early nineties thought it would be really interesting to do a solo album and to do some singing, because the things I’m really interested in are song-based projects. So I thought I should do some singing and not always just sit back being in the band. It’s been a very gradual thing over the last fifteen years and I’ve done a bit more over time, which has culminated in these songs I have written - something I never would have imagined, to be honest, and something I’m unlikely to do again.”
The album ostensibly focuses on death, or, perhaps more to the point, the memories left after death and how we associate and attribute them to those we lose - in this case, those Mick has lost. Was it a difficult album to make, in terms of subject matter? “No, it wasn’t difficult. It was difficult to write, because I’m not used to writing that volume of stuff. That was the real challenge, to write what I deemed was necessary - about fifteen or sixteen songs, which I’m not used to doing, so that took a while. But it would take most songwriters a while to write fifteen or sixteen songs. So that was a big undertaking and not really knowing whether half way through that process I would be happy with what I’d done in the end anyway, because I’m not normally a songwriter, so it was difficult.” Mick further adds to the recording process “going in and finishing it in the studio was actually very simple, as I know that process very well, of course. So that was no difficulty at all, but the writing was”.
Most recently was the death of Rowland S. Howard, legendary guitar player from The Birthday Party with whom Mick had worked up until his last days, producing Rowland’s last and great album ‘Pop Crimes’. Was his death a major factor in this project? “Not Rowland specifically, no. I was well under way with it when Rowland died, I’d probably written half of it by that time… I think when you reach my age, if you haven’t experienced a lot of loss over the years then you are just very lucky. I suppose I have lost more people of my own age that would be normal to various unhappy accidents and misdemeanours, it’s a pretty bad strike rate to be honest. It’s also not that uncommon to have lost a lot of people over the years.” Mick continues in reference to its affect on the album, “I suppose the impetus wasn’t so much about people I had recently lost, as that seemed to be happening all the time. But what lead me into it, was the observations you remember about people; it’s not about the loss, or the sadness even, it’s kind of what is left after that that I’m trying to look at in the album. The songs aren’t definitive portraits of people, they are bits and pieces or sketches, that’s the point.”
Creativity, it seems, cannot escape Mick. Those who may have falsely interpreted this as some kind of semi-retirement (myself included) are grossly mistaken. Mick’s current workload is enough to make ones head spin, and it’s a refreshing and genuinely exciting time to be in receipt of his output, be it his solo project, his excellent work with PJ Harvey’s latest, or whatever else is on the cards. “Even Nick said to me ‘What are you going to do?’ And I said ‘I’m going to do all the things I normally do except the Bad Seeds’”. Forty years down the line and Mick Harvey is still defying expectation and convention, and long may it continue.