INTERVIEW: MICK HARVEY
Mick Harvey is a rare breed of artist – he’s made a living playing in bands outside of the Australian mainstream. This might seem commonplace today, but in the early 80’s when getting a record deal was the only way you were going to be taken seriously, it’s testament to just how good his bands were.
When I first contacted Mick to come and speak at our weekend, he told me how he’d spent many years managing The Birthday Party and Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. Well, you can imagine how I wanted to hear about that experience! It was a privilege to have an hour with one of Australia’s great musicians and collaborators and as a room of self-managed, self-funded indies, we knew we were about to get a master class from a master craftsman.
I thought I’d start at the beginning, with The Boys Next Door, the band which would eventually be renamed The Birthday Party and take yourself, Nick Cave and Rowland S Howard overseas and onto bigger things. I’ve always been curious, did you ever play a show in a country town?
We played Warrnambool a couple of times. Once with The Radiators and another time with Dragon.
How’d you go down?
Like a lead balloon. There weren’t too many regional gigs that were interested in homosexual new wave bands! They would have thought we were a bunch of poofs ripe for a decking. ‘Let’s deck these skinny arty wankers!’
Is that why you eventually moved to London?
We needed to move out of Australia because we weren’t making music that was ever going to be particularly commercially successful. So we thought we’d try going abroad to see if we could build a larger audience base.
Did you go over with label interest?
No, we just went over off our own bat and started setting ourselves up there. No-one we knew had ever done this kind of thing at the time, even The Saints went over with EMI backing them. We didn’t get paid for any of our gigs for about a year. We didn’t have anybody so we had to go about booking gigs and finding a record label. We found ourselves in London without a manager so I suppose I started managing by default. As the people in this room are aware that’s usually the person who realises that it’s all going to fall apart if they don’t start doing something and then you end up in the position where you’re the one who does that stuff, which is basically how it happened.
How old were you at the time?
About 21, 22.
The recent documentary Autoluminescent paints a fairly bleak picture of this time? That things hadn’t worked out in London and so you decided to move to New York.
Timeframes get compressed, things are out of order, the history portrayed in Autoluminescent isn’t necessarily accurate. By the time we went to America we were doing really well in London. But I suppose that version of events (the successful one) ruins the great story about living in penury and sleeping in your suit.
So what did you find when you got to the States?
No-one knew who we were when we got to America – that was interesting again. It was quite similar in 1981 as to how it is now. The post punk scene had lots of little labels springing up everywhere and pressing vinyl. There were tonnes of shops that would buy vinyl directly from bands so we just got there and pressed up a single and started ringing up record shops and sending them to radio stations. It came together largely because John Peel played one of our singles. You have to start somehow, so we played gigs and then 4AD got in touch with us.
Did The Birthday Party ever become a sustainable business?
By the end of 1981 we were all on a weekly wage from our live shows. It wasn’t much, about 50 quid, so around $400-$500 today. I think the next year we gave ourselves a pay rise!
Did you find it difficult being in the band and managing as well?
It is difficult, it’s a weird balancing act being both. We’d have people come in occasionally to help us out with booking tours or administration which helped create some separation for me.
So what do you think is the manager’s role?
A manager’s main job is to find a band or an artist when they’re starting out, recognise that they’ve got some special talent and then set them up with the basic things they need which is a publisher, a record label and an agent, those sorts of things. If they can’t do that, then they’re not the manager. Then they get to delegate jobs and be the head honcho who bosses everyone around until the end of eternity and take’s their percentage. That’s what they do.
Fundamentally my problem with managers’ is that I think they’re parasites and I’ve never been interested in them. Particularly in the big music model, your Rihanna’s or Beyonce’s, the manager in that model is a parasite basically. We came out of punk, so we were not interested in a manager who would have told us what to do, that was completely against the principle of the band, we wanted to throw all of that out.
Did you ever get paid separately for your management role?
If I’d started being paid there probably would have been people ringing up saying “Mick! Can you go and do this please – now! Come around and get my dry cleaning!” (Laughs) No, I don’t think it would have gone that far, but you do need to create a situation where everyone is happy with what’s going on. Keep the peace. As long as everyone is being frank about how they feel, it’s OK. It usually works out.
Is there anyone in the music industry you’ve drawn inspiration from?
I think Daniel Miller at Mute Records was a fantastic example but he’s running a record label so it’s a slightly different thing. He runs things very even handedly, gives the bands a great deal. He had this hardnosed publishing company handling the publishing for bands he was working with in the eighties like Depeche Mode and Erasure and I think he was doing a 50/50 deal for foreign territories (which in today’s standards is not a great deal but back in the 80’s fairly common) and this guy came to him and said, “Daniel, I think you’re giving your bands far too good a deal with the record royalties, maybe with the foreign income for publishing you should make it 75/25” and he meant 75 to Mute and 25 to the band and Daniel said “OK, let’s do that.” And just did it the other way around! Deliberately. He knew what he was doing, so the band got 75% and the publisher got 25%! That’s the kind of guy Daniel is, so I suppose he’s a bit of an inspiration.
We never had a contract with Mute. I don’t think any of the bands I’ve been in with Nick (Cave) have had a contract, not since the Mushroom one fell through in 1978. We don’t have a record contract, I’m not contracted to anybody.
How important do you think it is for early career artist’s to understand the industry they’re working in? Or do you think it’s a distraction, that it dilutes the focus of their work in some way?
It doesn’t have to at all. It’s a separate thing in a way, as long as it’s not impinging on your time or your thought processes there’s no reason why you can’t do both. I’ve managed to prioritise back into doing the music and cutting out all that stuff. That’s probably the time I was neglecting the management! But it had to be that way so it probably worked out in the long run. When you’re in the studio irritating demands come in as everyone knows, especially in the day of the Smartphone. I know now, if I’m recording the phone is switched off and it’s in the corner.
What do you think of the artist that protests they can’t do both because they are an artist?
I don’t know, maybe they’re an artist and they can’t do both! A lot of artists aren’t predisposed to being able to handle organisation.
You don’t think that’s an excuse?
Not at all. I think for some artistic temperaments it’s not the right kind of thing for them to be doing; it does distract them, it does disturb them, they’re the ones that sit there and let me start doing it. Someone like Nick or Rowland would have been hopeless at doing those things anyway. They wouldn’t have felt confident about doing them either.
You seem to be good at doing both.
Yeah but you didn’t see me in the 80’s when I was in two full time bands, managing both and tour managing both! I don’t know what I was thinking.
Do you have a daily routine?
I’m not much of a songwriter but I do go and work creatively in my room. I try and set aside specific times to think and write if I want to. Making that time is really important. This year I’ve decided to make it every morning, but I’m a terrible morning person so it hasn’t worked out very well so far! But I get up because my son has to go to school anyway, so weekdays from 9-12 I go around to my music room and even if I can’t think of anything I just spend time there – paint the wall or something! You get an awful lot done doing that. Then I stop and have lunch and see what’s come in on the email before my son comes home from school.
I did make a firm decision not to do business after dinner but it was a real problem for many, many years after I moved back to Australia because it would get to the evening here and it was the start of the working day in London. Some disaster would go down and everyone would be ringing me up frantically and I’d be on the phone at 1am sorting it out which is not very healthy, I can assure you. So I put a stop to that, if there’s some emergency going on I don’t know about it until tomorrow morning. It can wait.
In a recent article in Spinner, you were quoted as saying one of the reasons you left The Bad Seeds was because:
“The balance between how much time I was spending on the creative side and the management side of things had changed and the balance wasn’t right anymore.”
It was one of the reasons I left, somehow I felt my ideas and creative input wasn’t as valued as it had been. It was still valued but the balance had gone for me and I got to the point with the last album and tour (Dig! Lazarus, Dig!) that I was doing more business than creative work which was never what was interesting to me in the first place.
You’ve spent time in the studio recording and co-producing with artists both established and early career. A lot of people in the room are in the process of creating new work, are there stages in the recording process that are worth spending money on?
I do think the recording is important. Unless someone in your band is actually really interested in being an audio engineer and isn’t just doing it because it’s required, then it’s really worth getting someone who has decided that that’s their vocation because they have a whole different attitude to it. I take stuff I’ve recorded at home into a studio and it sounds better in about two seconds. I can record it well enough but they just know what to do – particularly with mixing.
I would still recommend to a band that they find a good studio they feel comfortable recording in. The best records my bands have made have been in Berlin at Hansa and Townhouse Three in London that The Who use to own I think? You go into those places and you could knock the table over and it would sound fantastic. I’m deadly serious, the first session I did where I was the standalone drummer, I couldn’t tune a drum kit to save my life and the floor toms sounded dreadful and you came into the control room and it was magic, like the best drum sound you’d ever heard! We all played in the room, all spilling everywhere and it sounded brilliant. The room had it’s own sound. That’s a real special thing to experience, it’s worth the investment. It doesn’t have to be expensive either, Hansa wasn’t expensive at that time.
You’ve worked with PJ Harvey numerous times and most recently on her Mercury winning album Let England Shake. It’s rare for an artist to be making their best work twenty years into their career, what is it about her that sets her apart from the pack?
She’s very particular and has quite strange ideas. They’re very idiosyncratic and she has a very strong vision of how she wants them to be. She’s quite unique, I’m not sure where she gets some of her notions from! She’s extremely driven. For Let England Shake she had a very clear idea of how she wanted that record to sound and she asked myself and John (Parish) to come in and help her to achieve it. We didn’t use a bass guitar, we had a different starting point that wasn’t weighed down so it had a more open sound, bass instruments were used but not bass guitar which made for a very open sounded recording.
How do you manage the balance of family life with touring now that you have a son?
It’s a bit of a juggling act I’m afraid. It’s been very difficult going away. I have one son who is 11 years old now so it’s tough. Last year I went back and forth to Europe five times, usually for two to three weeks. It’s difficult managing that stuff – my one piece of advice is that if you want to keep your relationship going then keep it to one kid! If you’ve got two kids and you keep buggering off you are going to be very unpopular. It’s no longer practical to tour with two kids, I’ve seen people give up trying to do it, several times. Hotel rooms, transport, all the arrangements it just becomes too much, people give up and don’t do it anymore. Clare Bowditch does it successfully with a touring nanny, which is basically what you have to do. But with The Bad Seeds, as soon as people had more than one kid that was it for touring, they stopped coming along.
Photos courtesy of Shot of Soul.