|Interview from "Revue"  Revue|
|Sunday, 13 August 2006|
Fremantle, Western Australia, December 1994
I told Mick Harvey I think Let Love In is your best record and he was kinda non-committal. What do you think?
He would be and uh... I think it is. In fact I know it is. From a lyrical point of view I think it's much better, much more balanced, much less sorta melodramatic, although still quite so, and far more to do with me and the way I feel about things rather than sorta writing about other people, inventing stories and so on. For that reason I like it a lot and I think the music to the songs is really good too.
What was your intention overall?
I decided I'd make a concerted effort not to invent characters and write stories 'cause I'd leaned very heavily on that with Henry's Dream. I enjoy that a lot. It's tempting for me to sit down and think 'all right, I'm gonna write a song,' and have a formula for it, in a way. I invent a character that I like or I know someone and build a character around that, invent another one and I've got two so some kind of story can take place. I'm quite skillful at that but once I said no, I'm not going to have any characters entering this record, I had to write about myself.
There's the odd one. Jangling Jack for instance.
Well, that was written at the eleventh hour. Sounds like it too.
Was the idea to explore the concept of love?
No, not really I just found that to write about myself... my life is so limited in a sense - not so much anymore but at the time I was writing it - I could either write about my life on the road or whatever, which I had no interest in doing whatsoever, or I could write about my relationship with my wife. That was basically the two things that were going on so I chose the latter. And sparks flew.
So why does love equate to horror so often on the record?
That's the way it is, really. I find I have very mixed feelings about things and these feelings of foreboding that go on are really real, they exist, and I enjoy writing about them. Maybe enjoy is not the right word but I feel I have the language to write about them. I feel more drawn to writing about that side of things. I like the language that's used when I write about those kind of things. I hope (the record)'s not too much that way because it would be wrong to think that my relationship with my wife is all disaster and ugliness 'cause it's not by any means.
Women are treated as other-worldly in your songs, which is consistent with your boys' school upbringing.
I do have the tendency to look at them in either one of two ways, ones that I'm interested in. I think my boarding school days did a pretty good job of crippling my ability to have a natural relationship with women. That sounds bad, doesn't it (laughs). I'm quite timid in their presence. I still hold women in great esteem. There's a lot of mystery around them. I talk to other people who weren't brought up that way and women are just women but if you're denied something for long enough, which we were, particularly when you're blooming... you should be able to explore those territories.
What about this record sound-wise? You expressed disappointment with Henry's Dream.
I like the way this record's produced, I like the sound that Tony Cohen manufactured for it, but having said that I wouldn't make another record that sounded the same as this one. It fits very well with the songs that are there, it has a very lush, reverby sound which works very well with the sort of groove songs. The next record I'd like to make would be far rawer I would say.
The Bad Seeds sound is an artform in itself, isn't it? Have you kind of nailed it, now?
Yeah, I'd like to be able to destroy that sometimes. I don't want to get into a particular sound. It's difficult because each band member has such an idiosyncratic style. Like Blixa's guitar playing. It couldn't really be anybody else, right down to the way he tunes his guitar, the way he plays without a plectrum... it's a disjointed approach to the guitar. But at the same time it's such a reliable old beast, The Bad Seeds, in that you can just hand them anything. You can hand them something that's very basic or even quite corny in the way it's been originally conceived, you can just throw it at them and they'll take it to bits and create something that's quite beautiful. So it's very handy in that respect.
The Good Son distanced you from pretty much everything that was happening in contemporary music. Definitely not rock and roll. Is that still the pursuit?
I think our music still doesn't really relate to what's going on. This was blindingly obvious on the Lollapalooza tour, for example, this huge American circus. Apart from a very small amount of people -- we're talking hundreds, as compared to the 40,000 people that were there at each show, our music was of little interest to anybody. It's lyrically-based music, it's very flexible and quite fragile in its way and this is just of little interest to the new generation of people who are buying music.
Isn't it a case of familiarity through repeated exposure? Wouldn't another tour be in order?
They've been saying that for years with America and you've got to draw a halt sometime. You can't just go on humiliating yourself year after year (laugh). There comes a time, and I think Lollapalooza was that time. America has a different way of viewing things but we gave it our best shot with Lollapalooza and I can't really see us trying again.
Do you like rock and roll?
Broadly speaking I do, yeah. I like that there's this huge, massive, monstrous thing and there's certain individuals who survive in that and use the fact that it's basically an incredibly mind-numbingly boring idiom to do something quite brilliant amongst that. The Bob Dylans and Leonard Cohens of the world... Van Morrison. But in general it just stinks, really.
Anything worthwhile in the post-Nirvana wave, for you?
I think Nirvana were. It's always the same way with things like that, for me. There seems to be a couple of groups that I personally thought were worthwhile and the rest is just a load of shit. I hate movements like that on principle. They just encourage and give license to so much garbage. It's the same with the punk rock movement or the rap movement. There's great things happening within all of these genres, but not that many.
Was The Birthday Party part of some movement?
No, we were absolutely against that sort of thing, we were constantly being tugged at from all directions to be a part of a variety of different movements. The goth movement or post-punk movement, or punk in general or art music, all this sort of stuff, but we resisted.
Back then you talked about how how the audience was an infringement on your personal expression. How's your relationship with your audience now?
It's much more normal, I would say. The audience aren't kinda fundamental in the way that we operate and the way that our music develops. With The Birthday Party the audience was very important. Even though we loathed them, it was very much an anti-audience type of thing, it was fundamentally important that we had something to abuse and fight against. Nowadays with The Bad Seeds, the way I write, it exists very much within our own little framework and we create things and we give them as gifts or whatever to the audience and the audience like or appreciate them and we enjoy that fact. And the audience can be quite inspiring to us to do good shows or bad shows. We're much more charitable these days.
Do you find your fame and your public image compromises what you can do as an artist?
Um... I don't know if you know this, but I have this sort of over-image of being very gloomy and doomy. These words. Yeah, maybe you should write them down. And I find this very, very irritating because it makes it difficult for me to write gloomy and doomy lyrics. Because I loathe being called this so much that... I would probably be a lot more (gloomy and doomy) if people didn't call me that all the time, if that makes sense. I feel at times a need to make concessions to that just to keep people off my back. Not that I'm trying to make music that everyone can like or anything like that, it just irritates me so much that everyone's still calling this record fucking depressing and all that sort of stuff when I don't believe it is. It's just honest, it's the way I feel about things, one person's view of things. And I find that constricting.
You've used that effectively though, haven't you? This demonic image on the cover with "Let Love In" emblazoned across his chest. That's irony on a plate, isn't it?
Well I just thought it was a nice photo. I thought my neck looked very long.
You can't tell me that you don't enjoy manipulating that public persona a little.
All right, possibly. I regret that cover in a way. It's a nice photo but it looks a bit too much like Aladdin Sane or something. I shouldn't have said that, now everybody's going to. I wanted to talk about The Bible a little bit.
When did you first find yourself fascinated by it?
I knew The Bible reasonably well from a very young age, going to church so often. I was in the Cathedral choir and I went to church twice, sometimes three times a week. I did absorb a lot and found out I knew a lot about it in years to come. I would just read it. I always appreciated it, I always loved the way it was written. It basically started out as just enjoying the turns of phrases that were used. I enjoyed the Old Testament because of these wild stories, these terrible, unjust stories and I thought this concept of God was a bit of a hoot because of how much people suffered under him, in a way. Then I started to read the New Testament about the time I was writing the book (And The Ass Saw The Angel), taking a lot of speed and stuff like that and I got very involved in reading that. I would just look it up to find a quote and find myself reading it for the next two days, as one does if you take a lot of that sort of stuff. At the same time it was still very much looking at the words and enjoying the stories and enjoying comparing the different stories, the different gospels, one to the other, and I took a very academic view of the whole thing I guess. Then I just found I kept on reading it. I read it more and more. I read it daily now, and I know it very well.
Any particular books?
I read all of them. I like Mark a lot because it's so urgent, he'll get the basic bones of the story down and it seems like he's really rushing to get it done and it's quite exciting in that way. I used to like Luke the most because it was much more detailed and fleshed out, and concentrating a lot on the miracles. It was very very beautifully written. John is a bit irritating and so whacked out I can't take it very seriously. But I did find myself developing a sort of relationship with Christ in a way in that I really appreciated what he had to say about things. I don't believe in the virgin birth and I don't believe in the resurrection. But I believe as a man he was someone who had an incredible capacity to articulate his system of ideals and I find that enormously impressive. And I still do. I do more and more, really.
Are you a religious person?
(Long pause) No. I try and avoid things like that because too many conclusions are drawn if you say things like that. This thing is very open and I don't have any concrete philosophy about it. I sort of do, I'm becoming more... I don't consider myself a Christian, for example, but I have read about what they call radical Christianity which is a disbelief in God and a belief in Christ but even to be that way requires a challenge in your own lifestyle and to be a Christian you actually need to lead a certain type of life and at the moment I find myself unable to do that. I would like to do that, I would aspire to doing that, but I find... if I'm a Christian, I'm a very bad one. So I'm loath to say... But at the same time I am deeply interested in him.
The thing that interests me about Jesus Christ is not so much his divinity as his human side.
Yeah, absolutely. If he's a man it's far more astonishing than if he was some Godly being. There's a lot of books nowadays that are trying to destroy him, which are quite interesting to read because all they do is reaffirm what an amazing person he is. They defeat themselves in doing that. I'm quite interested in that. It's the conservative Christianity where people have to exist in a kind of vacuum, and not even have anybody around who isn't this way, to believe in what they do, to support each other. This is exciting in a way because it is so dogmatic and extreme but at the same time it just doesn't exist in the society we live in. Then there's the liberal Christianity which is what I've always heard, all the priests that I've some into contact with or whatever, which I've always found so spineless and wishy-washy, no meat on it at all. That is really irritating to me. Then there's this other movement which is just looking at him as a man, as some amazing person, which he was. No matter how much they try and... even with all the discrepancies in the gospels, this figure still comes out of it quite strongly, quite powerfully.
Do you think the Bible influenced your perception of the power of the written word?
Definitely, yeah. The fact that it can have... yeah, the power of the word. I wanted to talk about murder, too. Two of my favourite topics.
What's happening with the Murder Ballads project? Still on?
Yeah. There's no pressure on this record whatsoever. The songs themselves that we've recorded so far bear so little relation to anything that's going on at the moment that there's no urgency to have it done, like, in case punk rock goes out of fashion or whatever. It's just a joke this record, really. I mean we've got two songs recorded and mixed, one's about 15 minutes long and the other is about eight minutes long. I've written about two or three more, we've recorded a bunch of cover versions to kind of define the genre. We'll only keep a couple, just as an attempt to show that some kind of genre exists, 'cause I don't know if people know it exists.
What constitutes a murder ballad?
Well it basically grew out of an interest in the kind of country or folk murder ballads, Banks of The Ohio and things like that. We've done quite a lot of those in the past if I remember rightly. The songs I've written on my own are not like that, really, at all, and consequently the form of them has broadened quite a lot.
Given that violence if not murder is pretty central to your imagery, can you isolate what it is about that you like?
It's similar to The Bible, in a sense. It's to do with the language of violence, the way certain things can be written about, the language that can be used. To me it's very exciting to write about those things, literally to choose the words. I like the idea that there's some kind of horror that exists at the end of something and you give a certain amount of information about it and the rest is left up to the imagination. When I read about famous murders or serial killers it's always the fetishistic details of the thing that tend to excite me. The fact that they used a piece of electrical cord or whatever. It's a bit difficult to explain. In the Chamberlain case, for example, certain phrases were repeated in the court case and the media over and over again like a mantra. These bizarre things like the 'arterial spray' (which found its way into Papa Won't Leave You Henry) or my favourite one, the 'lemon matinee jacket'. This type of thing really excites me. These innocent things which, when there's some kind of horror behind them, become quite exciting. This is one aspect of it, I may be digging myself in a hole here. That was something I really enjoyed doing with the book. A murder is a very unique form of expression in a way and people go about it in different ways and it's very exciting. I don't condone this, by the way. On the one hand I feel morally repulsed by the serial killer, I really do. Much to my embarrassment, it's quite hypocritical of me I guess, but I do get on a kind of high horse when I hear people talking about it. Dahmer got everything he got and they should never have released Manson or whatever. But on the other hand I have to admit that, against my will, I'm attracted to the details of it. I don't have inclinations like that in myself. I do have a certain morbid interest in those things.
As a parent, do you feel any compulsion to moderate your violent rhetoric?
At the moment I don't. I'm kind of egotistical enough to say that if I can write a song I don't really care who has to suffer for it. If I can just get that out then it's enough. But I might have to address that view at some point. It's kind of unhealthy... There's violence and there's violence. Tarantino has a lot of fun with that genre. Some impressionable kid might take it seriously, I don't know, but he's making movies for intelligent adults and people have to understand that there's a certain amount of humour in watching John Travolta shoot up or whatever. There's a very violent image on the screen but there's humour in how disturbing that is. That scene causes a shock wave through the cinema but the fact that it does that is funny in itself. The argument is that the availability of this material actually promotes violence. Well, nothing is gonna change if it isn't there. That's pretty obvious. In England they're banning these videos all over the place. You can't get a long list of stuff, like they've sat down and said this one this one this one this one all have to be taken from the video shelves. Even though they recognize they're for adults, a child might accidentally see them so as a parent I'm being denied the responsibility, I'm being denied the right to allow my son to see whatever he likes, which makes me very angry, that some fucking board of censors can tell me what my kid can look at and what he can't, not giving me the power to decide on that kind of thing.
Are you living in London again?
Yeah, not for long if they keep up this kind of behaviour.
Has parenthood changed your perception of the world and your work?
Yeah I think so, very slowly unfortunately but it's made me understand I just can't continue this blatantly destructive lifestyle and try and have a kid at the same time. I've made the decision to have a kid and I have to change certain things about my life in order to accommodate him, just to be fair, and I've found that kind of difficult but it's happening. I was always worried that my work would suffer -- I'm sort of skirting around issues here -- but that has certainly not happened.
It's triggered a different view to the world in a way. It's begun with him. I feel a need to protect him from myself in a way and at the same time having done that it changes my way of looking at the world really. Certain behavioural modifications.
Luke has made me far more responsive to the world, made me far more open to things. I was so closed off, in my own world and fuck anybody else who got in the way. Not even that, it wasn't even anything aggressive in that way, I was just completely locked into my own little world and anyone else who was trying to relate to me in any way just kind of withered away on the sides in terms of our relationships and he's made me have to open myself up to what's around me, made me have to view things. You just have to if you're going to be a successful parent.
I wonder what your average hardcore Birthday Party fan might say to that.
I really couldn't give a shit. I haven't opened up that much that I would take on the opinion of a hardcore Birthday Party fan. I might listen to my local priest but never to a hardcore Birthday Party fan.
How vital is performance to you? Could you let it go and concentrate on writing?
Yeah definitely. This is happening as we speak, really. I'm finishing Australia and then I'm gonna bang touring on the head for a significant period of time. The reason for that is there's so much stuff that I could be doing that's going by the wayside. I'm constantly having to say 'I'm sorry, I'd like to do that but I can't because I have to go on tour.' And touring to me, even though I enjoy playing live and I do it reasonably well, is just becoming self-defeating. Even though I've really raged against this, we are getting locked into an album tour album tour syndrome. That's been happening for the last two records and thats' not on as far as I'm concerned.
What sort of things are you turning down?
After the American tour I went on a small holiday and when I got back after two months there was a pile of proposals literally --[he's making a gesture with his hand of about two foot] -- and it's so broad with me, the things I get offered, from TV stuff to doing an art exhibition to film music, acting roles, writing another book, it goes right across the board and a lot of the proposals are very interesting. I'm very grateful that I get sent these things but I just can't do them. Most of them have a schedule and I'm unable to fulfill them. A lot of people want me to write things for publications and things like that which I never get a chance to do, and you get out of practice in doing these things if you're just making your album and doing a tour. I never wanted to do that.