(This originally appeared on Under the Radar on October 9, 2014 and is one of my favorite reads so far)
Five years on from his untimely death, Liberation Music are celebrating the life and times of legendary Australian songwriter and guitar hero Rowland S. Howard with the Six Strings That Drew Blood anthology. Thirty-two tracks long, Six Strings The Drew Blood was compiled in conjunction with and with the full support of Genevieve McGuckin, Harry Howard and Mick Harvey. Surveying Rowland’s entire career, it progresses chronologically showcasing tracks by Rowland’s bands The Boys Next Door, The Birthday Party, Crime and the City Solution, These Immortal Souls, as well as work from the solo albums Teenage Snuff Film and Pop Crimes. Accompanied by substantial liner notes, it’s a fitting tribute to one of the most singular figures in post-modern rock. In celebration of its impending release, Martyn Pepperell got on the phone with Genevieve McGuckin, one of Rowland’s closest friends, former partner, and a founding member of These Immortal Souls (pictured above)…
Martyn Pepperell: Hi Genevieve, how many interviews have you done today?
Genevieve McGuckin : Far too many. Let me see, about nine probably [laughs]. I work in design and I’m trying to design things while the phone is going off. When you’ve done a lot of interviews you can start to repeating yourself. The interviewer doesn’t know that you’re repeating yourself, but you do. You try to tell your story in new words and it gets more and more obscure. It’s quite an alarming process. Some people probably just say the same thing over and over again with less passion [laughs].
Have you considered just straight up lying when you talk to us?
[laughs] That’s an idea. I hadn’t even thought of that. There are some people who have made quite an art of that. But then your imagination has to be working to make the lies more interesting.
While we’re on the subject, do you think Rowland ever lied to the media?
No, no. Rowland didn’t. Rowland was actually one of the most honest people I ever knew. The only lies he ever told were little lies about money when he was broke or in trouble. He never lied about how he felt about things. He was dead honest. That was one of the things I really loved about him. He could be quite hurtful at times, but he was great. I’m sure that there were a few interviews in The Birthday Party days where they got a bit mischievous and said a few ridiculous things, but they would have been so ridiculous as to be very obviously lies.
Could you share one of your lasting memories of Rowland with us?
I don’t really have an image like that of him in my mind because I knew him for so long. We were together. We stayed friends after we broke up until he got married. Then after his marriage broke up we shared a place. My memories of him are this enormous jumble that changes all the time. When he first died I could only remember him in the hospital. Thank god that has gone away now. I tend to remember him in domestic settings rather than on stage. It’s just a huge kaleidoscope really.
Someone else asked me this question today and it’s really difficult. He was hilarious and he made me laugh. I know he wrote sad songs, but he wasn’t morose though, not at all. He delighted in a sense of humor. It was like music was where his main release was. He was incredibly acute in his observations, which made him incredibly funny. I don’t think people know that about him, because his songs are about heartbreak and sad things. Unless you knew him it’s probably difficult to imagine this man having people rolling around the floor with laughter.
I often feel like there is an inverse relationship between the tone of someone’s music and how they behave in their day to day life.
He used to tell me that the noises he made when he played guitar were the things he couldn’t possibly express with words. He wasn’t a very aggressive person or confrontational. He was quite gentle but he had a bit of a sting in his tail. Like all very intelligent people, if he really didn’t like something he could be a bit scathing in a very brief manner and then forget about it. He did tend to get a lot of his feelings out in his music. As a friend he was extraordinary to have around. He wasn’t grumpy or self-sorrowful.
You said he could be scathing and then forget about it. Could you elaborate on that?
I don’t know whether it’s really right to say that he would forget about it. He wasn’t scathing to people he didn’t know. He was a complete gentleman really. If he was scathing with you it meant that you had achieved a certain level of intimacy. I think family wise, he could hurt them without realising it, just by a remark. That is also because people wanted him to approve of them. He was such a charismatic man and if he was around, it was very hard to not feel like he was the centre of everything. It was more of a private thing really. We’d be walking along the street and he’d see something and joke to me about it. He’d sum it up in a few words and have me hardly able to walk because I was laughing so much. I really miss that. That friendship, particularly when you’ve grown up with someone and played in a band with them.
I guess it’s a very specific way of living life that you can’t really experience again now he’s gone?
Yeah. He was inspiring. He was always onto the next new thing. He was always collecting things. He always had books ordered before the author had even finished writing them. He was always getting calls from bookshops and comic shops. He had an extraordinary level of knowledge about music, literature and film, and he was really generous with it. He was always lending people books. He’d go to see movies three times with different friends to make sure everyone didn’t have to go on their own. He was just so enthusiastic about pop culture and culture I guess. That is so precious, that sort of zest for things. The world does seem far more banal without a Rowland in it.
What do you think are the biggest things you learned from him as a musician?
Less is more. The value of tension. He hated virtuosity for the sake of it. He didn’t care how technically good anyone was at anything. He thought it didn’t matter. If it sounds good, it is good. He used to always tell me he was a dreadful guitarist. When I met him I played guitar and he really liked the way I played guitar, would you believe? Him and Mick Harvey moved into my flat and within a very short time I had graduated to just playing the piano. He was developing at such leaps and bounds that it made me feel, not intimidated, but, what’s that point, I’ll do something else. I wanted to be able to play with him, particularly at home. I ended up gravitating towards piano as a result. If it wasn’t for Rowland I might have ended up being a really good guitarist [laughs].
There is still time…
I wish there were more females who were genius guitarists. There are women who play guitar very well now, but there are still far too few women musicians who aren’t singers. But then we have Nina Simone don’t we.
Something which while it isn’t redressing the balance has been quite nice has been seeing the rise of women working within the electronic music space last few years.
Yes. Women like Pharmakon, all these strange young women making extraordinary noises. And of course my friends HTRK, who I love and Rowland really really loved. It seems to somehow be a less intimidating space for women to enter and more doable. Rock music is still very much a boy’s world unfortunately now. People might scoff at me for saying that now that feminism is a dirty word these days.
I can think of a lot of pretty well-known social media users who would say otherwise in regards to feminism.
Good. I’m glad. If you say things about women around here, sometimes people’s eyes start glazing over. But back in the seventies we really had to fight for certain things. I’m really enjoying the fact that there are more women involved in electronic music. I’ve always loved the form. Some of my early loves were Suicide and Eno and Kraftwerk, all men [laughs].
Rowland always loved female musicians and female songwriters. He thought they wrote about things more poignantly and were more emotionally intelligent in their music. He was a great champion for women, Rowland. I was very frustrating for him. He was very kind about my talent. I wrote lots of songs but I can’t really sing. I write lyrics and music but I don’t end up doing them because it’s very hard to get someone else to sing them. Rowland didn’t want to sing them because he was always convinced I had written a masterpiece. It was a thorn in his side and a big regret for me that I haven’t done that.
You could get that Japanese virtual reality J-Pop singer Hatsune Miku to sing them for you. Have you heard of her? She’s a singing voice synthesiser. Noise legends Hijokaidan have recorded a few album with her.
Oh yeah! That’s a great idea. Some people have also suggested that I should just talk my songs. I’ll look into that.
One last question, from what you’ve seen and experienced, what are the big differences between male and female songwriters?
I think that females approach it in a more holistic manner. A total mind, body soul thing where their music really gets you in that way. That might sound cliched about women, but there it is. I think men think in terms of rhythm and riffs. Then they put some words on top. I’ve noticed that men have much lower standards. They do something and they don’t doubt it. This is a good thing, but it can be a bad thing. They can put out records with one good song on them and not know. The women musicians I know are incredibly self-critical. It’s just a symptom of the way the world is and the way women look at themselves. You have to fight against this, but it also makes you more discerning I think. I think female songwriters are often sexier as well [laughs].
Here’s the video for ‘Mary Me (Lie! Lie!)’ by Immortal Souls and included on Six Strings That Drew Blood…
Rowland S. Howard’s ‘Six Strings That Drew Blood’ will be released on CD and available for deluxe vinyl pre-order on 24th of October 2014.