Over the last three decades, Mick Harvey has midwifed some of the most singular, striking works of the initial UK post-punk explosion and its subsequent aftershock waves. The Australian rocker is one of those bothersome bastards who seem to be able to play anything they lay their hands on, and his multi-instrumental abilities have been crucial to the output of The Birthday Party, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Crime & The City Solution and currently, PJ Harvey (no relation). Harvey has also maintained a sideline in solo albums since 1995, and his latest, Sketches From the Book of the Dead, is the first to appear since he hung up his Bad Seeds uniform in ’09.
The man responsible for assaultive, confrontational explosions of sound on records like The Birthday Party’s Prayers on Fire and Nick Cave’s From Her To Eternity has found that there’s still rocking to be done in his post-Bad Seeds phase, as demonstrated on PJ Harvey’s new album Let England Shake, but his latest solo outing is mostly a moody, melancholy batch of hushed, spooky ballads. That wasn’t necessarily the plan from the start, though. “I think there was probably more variation in the songs I wrote for the project,” Harvey told RR&R, “than there is in the end selection. I was aware of this as it happened, so I guess you could say that when I came to choose the songs, it worked for me to have a similar mood or atmosphere throughout, but it wasn’t the way it was envisioned or written.”
Much of Book of the Dead is occupied by tales and remembrances of deceased figures who loom large in Harvey’s past, some apparently going all the way back to his boyhood, like his father’s friend in “Ballad of Jay Givens,” as well as people like onetime Bad Seeds/Crime & The City Solution bandmate Rowland S. Howard on “October Boy.” But for the most part, evoking specific characters wasn’t part of Harvey’s agenda. “The songs are as much about memory and it’s fallibility as they are about anything else,” he explains. “It has become well established that ‘October Boy’ is about Rowland S. Howard and I quite deliberately made it easy to work that out… With most of the other characters I feel it is probably better that they are unidentified for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is to give the songs some kind of universality…In essence the songs are an attempt to delve into memory and the relationships we continue to have with people who are no longer with us, so to reveal identities and make things more specific would undermine a large part of the potential communicability of the ideas themselves.”
Having definitely emerged from the long shadow of Nick Cave after so many years, Harvey reveals that even his position as Cave’s longtime right-hand man was at least partially a function of circumstance. “To be perfectly honest it was quite unexpected that I became the principal collaborator for those early to mid years in The Bad Seeds,” he says. “In The Birthday Party I had simply been part of the band, playing guitar and occasionally writing some of the music for the songs. I guess my position in the band became more powerful towards the end in ‘82/’83, and after the band broke up I was the one who Nick asked to continue working with in his new project. In a way my preeminence in that project [The Bad Seeds] came from a power vacuum and a lack of general reliability on the part of other members—it fell to me to be the responsible one, especially when it came to instrumental arrangements and the album production.” About his exit from the band, Harvey explains, “More recently the level of my artistic involvement, my business responsibilities toward the band and my personal requirements simply went a bit out of balance where The Bad Seeds were concerned. After such a long and successful union it was better to move on than to struggle with it.”
Of his time with ’80s post-punk art rockers Crime & The City Solution, part of the extended Bad Seeds family, Harvey says, “I was especially happy with the second line-up, or fourth depending on how you look at the history of the band, which was based in Berlin. Sadly I had probably over-committed myself being in both Crime and The Bad Seeds at the same time. In hindsight I wouldn’t do that again—it probably would have been better had I just done The Bad Seeds and given myself more space for my own projects. Apparently Simon Bonney is planning to relaunch Crime & the City Solution soon. Good luck to him is all I can say.”
Besides his own solo endeavors, Harvey has currently committed a substantial chunk of his time and energy to working with PJ Harvey, co-producing and playing on Let England Shake and accompanying her on the road in support of the album. “He defines his working relationship with Polly Jean as “Evolving. I think Polly has asked me to play on every album she has made since I met her [starting with 1995's To Bring You My Love] but I haven’t always been available and sometimes the circumstances would not have been ideal for what I can bring to such a project. So sometimes I had to decide against being involved. The recent album, Let England Shake, was certainly a rewarding and challenging experience and called on some of my particular abilities, so it was especially enjoyable. The concerts have been stunning, too, and equally challenging, so I’m having a lot of fun with it and also feel the artistic bonds with Polly are growing as a result.”
On Book of the Dead being the first album to be dominated by his own compositions, Harvey reckons, “It’s because I don’t normally write songs. In the past I have occasionally written lyrics but for the most part where I have co-writing credits it’s for the music. When I wrote a couple of songs around what would become the basic theme of this album it gave me a starting point to even consider writing more songs for such a project. But I still don’t consider myself a songwriter,” confesses Harvey, “not in the manner of people who do it all the time…if anything, this self-penned album is a bonus.”