Harry Howard and his brother, the late Rowland S. Howard, are two of Australia's most influential musicians. From The Birthday Party through These Immortal Souls, Crime and the City Solution and Harry Howard and the Near Death Experience, they brought, and bring, a dark sense of irony and passion to Australian music.
Harry Howard has organised the Pop Crimes concert on January 26 at The Corner Hotel in Richmond, and the following European tour of the show. It showcases the astonishing music and career of Rowland, whose guitar playing is recognised as a seminal influence on many bands around the world, aside from his acerbic and beautiful songwriting and recording.
Can I ask about your first memories of music? What got you into listening?
Probably my first introduction to pop music and rock music would have been watching The Monkees, the TV show. I still remember that whole thing so well... one of the first things I remember: there was a hype aimed at kids about how The Monkees were coming; there were ads and stuff.
This is what I remember, the hype. I don't know how true it is. I loved the show when it arrived. They were just all children really, like me, but they were operating in the adult world, and having fun with everything they did.
I was reading recently how Brian Jones's drug buddy 'Stash', Prince Stanislaus Klossowski De Rola, this European nobility that used to hang out with Brian Jones in London; he was pencilled in to be a Monkee but they kept him waiting too long; he got bored and moved on.
My mum was very into the Beatles when we were kids. She would buy Sergeant Pepper's, stuff like that. She loved Paul and John; she was a big Beatles fan. She liked The (Rolling) Stones too.
The three (Harry, Rowland and sister Angela) of you were musical. Your parents encouraged that?
They did, because they were musical. My father played recorder and read music, and my mother played classical guitar and sang. And she had lessons throughout our childhood, from what I remember.
Her guitar teacher gave Rowland lessons for a while. We had a piano; we all got enrolled in piano lessons - more Rowland and Angela, actually; I seemed to dodge that.
Rowland and I, when we were quite young, we went to these folk guitar classes. It was quite weird. It was in some big house, and there were quite a lot of people doing guitar lessons there. We got a bit bored and we decided we wouldn't go on with it, but of course Rowland later went back to it.
Not to those lessons. It wasn't like 'Wow, I gotta keep doing this. I'm gonna master Camptown Races'. I don't know, maybe Rowland could have turned out a marvellous acoustic player.
What starts to have an impact on your listening after the Monkees?
Well, I just remember picking up on things from the consciousness of people I knew at school. There was this big ad campaign on TV for Elvis Rocking On, this double-album compilation of Elvis. And people were talking about it and I was quite interested in Elvis - I was young at this stage and very unsophisticated musically, you know, grade 5 or something like that. And I think it was $4.99 and I bought it. I carried on this kind of wave of interest. I mean girls I liked, liked it...
I knew the song Heartbreak Hotel because my mum had the Astor single. When I first got interested in music, I just play one song off an album. I used to play Return to Sender and just wear a groove into the LP, but I played it probably 10 times and then it worked its way to the back of the record collection.
Later when I was older and Rowland was playing records and things were grabbing my attention, and I think the first one was The Kinks. I ended up buying not their greatest work, but their current work at the time, around 1975 or '76. Schoolboys in Disgrace. It was a bit silly, a concept album. I must listen to it again; Ray Davies is an amazing songwriter.
There's a darkness in their work. It can be hard to pinpoint, but even Waterloo Sunset, there's a kind of darkness there, it sounds a bit like the end of the world.
You've worked with people like Simon Strong, performing in Pink Stainless Tail.
Simon was this really entertaining guy, very intellectual, in a silly way - I don't want to make him come across as too serious, that would be to his detriment.
He was always very amusing and he was always nattering to me about some space-time theory or what have you. He called himself an 'experimental novelist'. He's a very good writer.
We talked about books and music. We liked Texas psychedelic punk. After I moved back to Melbourne and These Immortal Souls had parted ways, we were at dinner talking and enthusing about (Texas underground rock band) Red Krayola, and I said 'Why don't we form a group?' That became Pink Stainless Tail.
These Immortal Souls, in my opinion, are criminally under-recognised. I genuinely believe that band, in its iterations, was so much better than so much else going on. Did you know how good it was?
I don't think we did, because we didn't get enough affirmation, and because of the whole setup and the situation we were in.
Because we were on the same label as Nick Cave, we were kind of the poor cousins for Nick. We were in the shadows there, in a way. It's so strange to think back on that time, how little feedback you'd get.
We'd get a fan letter every couple of weeks or something, but it would be entirely different. Obviously you didn't have the internet community that all bands have now. I wish we had - it would have been so encouraging.
There's a purity of intent in These Immortal Souls.
As a band we were very isolated. We weren't connected to the Australian music scene; we weren't connected to the English music scene or the Berlin music scene.
We just existed in a bubble. We were very critical of everything else that was going on, in that 'fascism of youth' way. When you are young it's so easy to see everything in black and white. We were very dismissive of most things, deliberately trying not to be like other bands, probably to our detriment in terms of success, I'm sure.
Trying to set yourself apart from everything else that's going on?
Yeah, definitely. That was really, really important, not be like anything else. So you'd be horrified if a song sounded like anyone else, unless it was a bit like some kind of seminal band like The Stooges or The Velvet Underground.
But anything that sounded like a modern band: 'ugh MODERN? How gauche. How worthless.'
That's how we felt generally, but there were always exceptions. If we found something we liked, we loved it.
That thing of finding something you like, which now of course is made easier by the fact that most everything is on Spotify or on some internet database; somewhere you can hear every Texas psychedelic band ever recorded, you can get every garage band. But at the time, to educate yourself about that kind of music, which few people had the wherewithal to do, meant that you had to dig and learn about the music.
And you had to savour the scraps of the information you found. Because just to find a bit of information was a thrill, because things were just so random and inaccessible.
And radio shows, like The Ghost (Stephen Walker's The Skull Cave on RRR in Melbourne) or John Peel (on the BBC) were important, because records were very expensive and hard to come by. An education in music was so much more difficult.
It's odd for me because I don't have that passion anymore, to need to know. It's very rare that I get a feeling about anything musical these days, that it's vital and I need to know about it. It's rare now. Even if it's someone I like... that's a big change.
It was like music was some kind of necessity, like a saviour, when I was young; that I had to have to have these things, I had to learn about these things.
And the fact was that most of them were impossible to find out about or to have, because reissuing was in its infancy in the 1980s.
Rare American psychedelia was put out, but I couldn't find anything like that generally in London in the '80s.
As I've got older, I'm less concerned. I let things find me to some extent. If something grabs my attention, I'll follow it up.
But I don't really know how or where to look. It's like sifting through ridiculous mountains of information.
Is that where you are with the NDE?
I'm not quite sure what you're asking. I could say that the first record, I was just writing whatever I wanted to, to amuse myself, just playing with songwriting I suppose.
And then when it came to do another one, I thought well, okay, I have to make it better, how can I make it better than the last one? I had to step away from myself a bit and try to construct something.
Then by the third - I don't know if this is answering your question - by the third one, I thought this is quite hard because it has to be better than the last. Because no one will pay attention to it otherwise; it has to be remarkable.
Anyway, I tried my best at the time.
Once you do a thing, it becomes almost like when you explain a dream. It becomes something different in the retelling because it will always be embellished. It's moved away from itself because it's reimagined.
I wanted to finish with asking about Pop Crimes(the Songs of Rowland S Howard) [first performed in St Kilda three years after Howard's death, again for the All Tomorrow's Parties Festival in 2013 and at the Melbourne Festival in 2014.] People obviously want you to do the show? Or do you just feel...
Why are we doing it? It's a good question.
I don't know. I suppose personally, it's as close as you can get to playing with Rowland. And you know, if Rowland was still here, I hope at some stage we would have, and I imagine we would have, probably done some of These Immortal Souls shows and of course Rowland would have kept going and working with Mick (Harvey) and Brian (Hooper) and JP (Shilo).
For everyone involved, it feels good to be something nice for Rowland. Rowland's become iconic in a way, hasn't he? He's got that thing.
Australia is such a funny place. It ignores everyone, and then you can achieve a kind of status where it's just like you're automatically accepted a god.
Like it's either 'What's the fuss?' or 'you're a legend'. Know what I mean?
Rowland got picked up again because a new generation saw him in a way that made him new.
Pop Crimes(the Songs of Rowland S Howard) will be performed at The Corner Hotel in Richmond on Sunday January 26. Doors open at 7.45pm. Alongside Harry Howard, feature performers will include Edwina Preston, Mick Harvey, JP Shilo, Genevieve McGuckin, Craig Williamson, Conrad Standish, TJ Howden, Hugo Race and Jonnine Standish.