A kind of deliberate excess

Mick Harvey on Wim Wenders, Serge Gainsbourg and Mutiny In Heaven: The Birthday Party

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Mick Harvey on The Boys Next Door with Tracy Pew, Phill Calvert, Rowland S Howard and Nick Cave, and the group name change before going to London: “We had some discussions and we came up with The Birthday Party.”
Mick Harvey on The Boys Next Door with Tracy Pew, Phill Calvert, Rowland S Howard and Nick Cave, and the group name change before going to London: “We had some discussions and we came up with The Birthday Party.”

In the first instalment with Mick Harvey we started out discussing his appearance in Wim WendersWings Of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin, screenplay with Peter Handke) as a member of Bad Seeds (with Nick Cave, Thomas Wydler, Blixa Bargeld, Kid Congo Powers, Roland Wolf) and Crime and the City Solution (Rowland S Howard, Simon Bonney, Harry Howard, Epic Soundtracks); Wenders’ latest films, Anselm (Anselm - Das Rauschen der Zeit on Anselm Kiefer) and Perfect Days (Japan’s Oscar submission); PJ Harvey, and Mick’s take on translating and recording four albums of Serge Gainsbourg songs (Intoxicated Man, Pink Elephants, Delirium Tremens, Intoxicated Women) in English, and Jane Birkin (performing at the French Institute Alliance Française in New York).

Mick Harvey (background artworks by Ann Holt, and Michelangelo Russo with Jennifer Jabu) with Ed Bahlman and Anne-Katrin Titze on William Friedkin’s The Birthday Party film (screenplay by Harold Pinter) and the name change: “We thought, yeah, that’s good. It’s actually connected with that.”
Mick Harvey (background artworks by Ann Holt, and Michelangelo Russo with Jennifer Jabu) with Ed Bahlman and Anne-Katrin Titze on William Friedkin’s The Birthday Party film (screenplay by Harold Pinter) and the name change: “We thought, yeah, that’s good. It’s actually connected with that.”

Music producer and 99 Records founder Ed Bahlman joined us for the in-depth exploration of Ian White’s Mutiny In Heaven: The Birthday Party, which led us to William Friedkin’s The Birthday Party film (screenplay by Harold Pinter) and setting the record straight on how The Boys Next Door band name change occurred.

I first met Mick when Ed introduced us backstage at the Bad Seeds Beacon Theatre concert in 2002 during their No More Shall We Part tour, which had been postponed in 2001 because of 9/11.

From Melbourne, Mick Harvey joined us on Zoom for a conversation on Mutiny in Heaven: The Birthday Party and his prolific creativity since the demise of the band 40 years ago.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Hi!

Mick Harvey: Hello!

AKT: We met 21 years ago. Ed Bahlman introduced us backstage in New York when you were performing at the Beacon Theatre in 2002 and then again in 2003 {at the [Roseland Ballroom]. You’re an executive producer on The Birthday Party documentary. How do you feel seeing this part of your life in a documentary?

MH: I don’t know what I feel particularly. It’s a representation or a way for that story to have been told and it’s depicted in a particular way. Mostly it was a good choice, one of many options. It could have been told in many different ways but I think this particular way is quite powerful, kind of immediate and quite personal, very internalised, and I kind of like that. I don’t really know how I feel about it. What I think about it is what I said. Feeling suggests other kinds of emotional connection.

I’m not quite sure what that emotional connection is. I suppose one feels some kind of emotional connection with one’s history and one’s work, but I’m not sure how I feel about that. Because most of what I’ve done in my career, you just keep moving forward. So it’s old, history, and it has its place. But I’m becoming very unsentimental in my old age.

Mick Harvey: “For a long time after The Birthday Party, my main thing was just the two bands that are in the Wenders film for instance, which was Bad Seeds and Crime and the City Solution.”
Mick Harvey: “For a long time after The Birthday Party, my main thing was just the two bands that are in the Wenders film for instance, which was Bad Seeds and Crime and the City Solution.”

AKT: That’s why I asked. It feels like a little package of the past that comes back in a documentary. You have a new album out quite recently!

MH: I’m still working, I have another coming out next May, if I get it finished, as well. And there’s a couple of other albums that I finished with other people that will probably be coming out as well next year. I’m still pretty busy with stuff.

AKT: I want to go back into the past to a specific time and place, which is also in the documentary. Wim Wenders is also a friend, and I am curious what memories you have of making Wings of Desire. Because you are everywhere where there’s music performances in Wings of Desire.

MH: Am I?

AKT: Yes, in three songs! [Six Bells Chime with Crime and the City Solution and two with the Bad Seeds - The Carny and From Her To Eternity]

MH: Okay, yeah, we were just working on the film and Wim wanted us involved in it. We collaborated very closely with how we were incorporated in the film. I didn’t want it to be just a tokenistic thing where the band was suddenly there. It was kind of tied into the story which was really important rather than being us suddenly playing in some place. There was a connection between the principal actors and the band’s performances. That was a nice process, you know, Wim’s a very open director.

Mick Harvey on Mutiny in Heaven: The Birthday Party executive producer Wim Wenders: “It’s good to have his name on-board and him consulting with people in Berlin about technical aspects.”
Mick Harvey on Mutiny in Heaven: The Birthday Party executive producer Wim Wenders: “It’s good to have his name on-board and him consulting with people in Berlin about technical aspects.” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

He lets people kind of find their own way. I guess he kind of guides them by allowing them to do what they want to do. He trusts them. That’s why he chooses the people that are around him. That’s at least the impression I’ve gained. Maybe that’s just musicians, maybe he’s not like that with the actors. I have the feeling that he’s quite gentle with the actors as well, that he lets them find their path and express themselves. It seems to be part of his methodology.

AKT: He is very open.

MH: It almost feels like you’re in control of what’s happening, but then clearly he managed to tie the whole thing together, subtly without people noticing that he’s actually controlling the whole thing.

AKT: Did you see his latest films?

MH: I haven’t seen the Anselm Kiefer yet. Apparently it’s very good.

AKT: It’s at DOC NYC, so I’m looking forward to seeing it.

MH: What is the other one?

AKT: Perfect Days, which is wonderful. I’ve seen it at the New York Film Festival. It’s Japan’s Oscar submission.

MH: Yeah, yeah, right! It’s set in Japan. What is it about again?

Solveig Dommartin as Marion in Wings Of Desire moving to Crime and the City Solution performing Six Bells Chime
Solveig Dommartin as Marion in Wings Of Desire moving to Crime and the City Solution performing Six Bells Chime

AKT: It’s about someone who is cleaning toilets in Tokyo.

MH: I think my son might have seen it here at the film festival in Melbourne. I’ve been hearing about Wim’s recent work and he’s been pretty light touch on this documentary. It’s good to have his name on-board and him consulting with people in Berlin about technical aspects. Whereas my executive producer role was very different.

AKT: How so?

MH: Much more hands-on. Consulting about a lot of the rough edits and the overall direction of the film. I was there at the whole sound mix because my other role was as the general music supervisor. So I was inevitably a bit more engaged and also a central contact point for a lot of people.

AKT: It’s a snapshot of a time that is over and that’s not going to come back. Between what you are doing now and what is in the documentary, Serge Gainsbourg has been a big name in your life.

MH: I guess, I’ve been doing a lot of things. For a long time after The Birthday Party, my main thing was just the two bands that are in the Wenders film for instance, which was Bad Seeds and Crime and the City Solution. I suppose some time after Crime and the City Solution broke up and I was still in the Bad Seeds I started to work on the Gainsbourg stuff. That occupied probably the second half of the Nineties. Then in the first decade of the new millennium I started to work more consistently with PJ Harvey.

Mick Harvey on The Birthday Party film and the Harold Pinter play: “It’s a very black humour and I think we just kind of liked that and the connection with that name, even though it’s a weird name for a band.”
Mick Harvey on The Birthday Party film and the Harold Pinter play: “It’s a very black humour and I think we just kind of liked that and the connection with that name, even though it’s a weird name for a band.”

AKT: Did you ever meet Jane Birkin, who died this year?

MH: I met Jane a couple of times.

AKT: But you never performed together?

MH: No, I think I would have found the whole thing around Serge a bit difficult to cope with. I don’t think she would have been interested. I think the family generally are suspicious that I’m some kind of weirdo fan and they keep their distance from me. They don’t realise that I’m not really like that at all and that I’m just interested in the music and the songs.

AKT: Well, you’re translating.

MH: The weirdo fans are into all the anecdotes and the stories and the image and all this kind of bullshit that’s not really my thing. Well the family keep their distance and I wouldn’t want to know them anyway. Jane was very lovely. The couple of times I spoke with her at any length she was very charming and positive about what I’ve done, even though I’m sure she just thought it was completely pointless at the same time. I was making the work more accessible to people who don’t speak French and I was just enjoying the process. A lot of French purists would say: You don’t need to do this! That’s kind of nonsense. Well, you don’t have to get it, it doesn’t matter.

AKT: I would like Ed to join us here. You know each other from a long time ago.

MH: Hello Ed!

Ed Bahlman: Hi! The first time I met you was in 1981 when Ruth Polsky …

MH: Yeah, Ruth was booking us, yeah! Did she even have the Danceteria yet?

EB: No, she had Hurrah.

MH: Yeah.

EB: She brought the band into the shop [99].

The Birthday Party - Harold Pinter Complete Works: One, collection Ed Bahlman
The Birthday Party - Harold Pinter Complete Works: One, collection Ed Bahlman Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

MH: I can’t say I remember that.

EB: It was on MacDougal Street.

MH: I do sort of remember the shop.

EB: I ran the 99 label out of the store. I only sold imports and independents. I didn’t sell major label US releases, The Ramones or Patti Smith, but I had The Boys Next Door and I had your first Birthday Party album.

MH: Good, that’s good. Glad somebody had it.

EB: Did you hear how Ruth Polsky died?

MH: Yes, I know about that.

EB: I was over at Bettina Koster and Anne Carlisle’s apartment when they got a phone call at one in the morning.

MH: What year was that?

EB: ’86.

MH: It was ’86? Oh Jesus Christ! It’s really a long time ago. I would have said 1990 or something. It’s hard to believe.

Mick Harvey’s third Serge Gainsbourg album, Delirium Tremons
Mick Harvey’s third Serge Gainsbourg album, Delirium Tremons

EB: And she was so involved.

MH: Totally, a great shame.

EB: How did the name The Boys Next Door come up? How did you agree to that name?

MH: I don’t know, I wish I hadn’t. Somebody else came up with that, not me. I think Nick and Tracy came up with it actually.

EB: In the documentary during the graphic novel imagery… [from Reinhard Kliest’s Mercy on Me]

MH: How did we change that name to The Birthday Party? That’s a different question. Nick claims not to remember how that happened, but I think he’s just taking the easy way out and using some information from a biography that was written by me and Jim Thirlwell for the band in 1981 when we made reference to a fire in the Bombay airport and changed our name after that. It was completely surreal and kind of an absurdist reference to this thing. I think Nick read that subsequently and it had gone into his brain that we changed our name on the flight on the way over. But that’s not what happened at all.

AKT: What did happen?

MH: Maybe he was so drug-addled in the intervening years that he forgot the discussions we had. It’s a fairly prosaic kind of story really. We were heading out of Australia, it was a big change in our career and it seemed like an opportune time to change our name as we’re starting from scratch really. And The Boys Next Door seemed like a bit of a dumb name. So we had some discussions and we came up with The Birthday Party.

Mick Harvey on Jane Birkin and his Serge Gainsbourg project: “The couple of times I spoke with her at any length she was very charming and positive about what I’ve done ”
Mick Harvey on Jane Birkin and his Serge Gainsbourg project: “The couple of times I spoke with her at any length she was very charming and positive about what I’ve done ” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: As a rebirth? Or just something silly and light?

MH: A nice idea, but that wasn’t it. Nothing to do with rebirth. I wish! We had a song called Happy Birthday. Weirdly. During discussion, people throwing ideas around, I think, I might have even said ‘The Birthday Party.’ It was actually a film that would be on late night television, the Billy Friedkin version of the Pinter play, which we would quite often see.

EB: Oh!

AKT: Oh yeah, of course!

MH: And we thought, yeah, that’s good. It’s actually connected with that.

AKT: The violence that’s in there, contrasting with the cheery name: The Birthday Party!

MH: If you’ve seen the film, you know what happens in The Birthday Party and it’s pretty dark.

AKT: Exactly!

MH: We really loved that film. It’s very difficult and bizarre and it’s quite funny, too. Pinter’s sense of humour is quite English and absurdist and bizarre and kind of dark as well. It’s a very black humour and I think we just kind of liked that and the connection with that name, even though it’s a weird name for a band. We decided to change the name before we left for England, but Nick’s conveniently said that he’s forgotten, because it’s a pretty prosaic story. He’d rather just kind of say “I don’t know what happened, somehow we changed our name the way over.”

Mutiny In Heaven: The Birthday Party poster
Mutiny In Heaven: The Birthday Party poster

AKT: Do you have any plans coming to New York?

MH: Well, no one’s inviting me! I have thought about trying to find an agent to actually book some shows in some mayor cities. I’ve never played any solo shows there either. You know the way things are in America, agents and people like that are very career-driven, so I don’t think they see me as an opportunity to advance their career.

AKT: Well, the Alliance Française could do a Gainsbourg evening with you!

MH: Well definitely! I realised I could do shows in America and probably play New York and L.A. and San Francisco with a Gainsbourg evening and probably do other shows in other places doing a solo show.

AKT: I’ve introduced a lot of films there, so I could bring it up and ask.

MH: At the French Institute, oh yeah. Well that could be interesting.

AKT: Birkin played there!

MH: And if they have a place in L.A. maybe I could do a tour and present it in a few different places.

EB: On Serge, the video we first saw on your collaboration was Deadly Tedium. Wow, that’s great!

MH: I just kept going with stuff and did more as the years went by, some kind of deliberate excess.

EB: That’s nothing new!

MH: It seemed appropriate.

EB: Who directed the video?

All Access Guest Pass for the Bad Seeds Beacon Theatre concerts in 2002
All Access Guest Pass for the Bad Seeds Beacon Theatre concerts in 2002 Photo: Ed Bahlman

MH: Someone called Lyndelle-Jayne Spruyt. She did a lot of video work and she’s a photographer.

EB: What’s interesting to see is you playing the drums in Birthday Party. You were great in those clips!

MH: Oh thank you! Thank you!

EB: You said: Phill’s not coming, I can do the drums? You were terrific.

MH: That was sort of decided for me. The others decided we definitely shouldn’t take Phill to Berlin and said “You can play the drums!” So it wasn’t really my choice. I said “Okay, I play the drums then!”

EB: In what we see in the documentary you sound great.

MH: That’s very kind, I think with my drumming I was still learning aspects. In terms of technique I wasn’t really very worried about it; I was more interested in how I could exploit the instruments to make a racket and the right kind of rhythm and noise and stuff. I was still a bit of a novice on the drums in terms of understanding that you need to have your centre. I was still learning some of the rudimentary things about playing drums whilst bashing the hell out of them. But I’ve always enjoyed playing drums.

Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox in French introduced by Anne-Katrin Titze at the French Institute Alliance Française in New York
Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox in French introduced by Anne-Katrin Titze at the French Institute Alliance Française in New York

EB: It’s great seeing you again!

AKT: Thank you for taking the time.

MH: No worries, so I did end up talking quite a bit about the documentary there. The artwork is by Michelangelo Russo there in the background. He’s an Italian Melbourne-based artist. Actually it’s by two, by him and his partner, Jenny [Jabu]. And the other one is an Ann Holt.

AKT: And there’s a nice pillow too in the background.

MH: This one?

AKT: Yes, not the dog pillow!

MH: We have a lot of pillows [he holds up a number of them]

EB: You’re the Pillow Man!

MH: It’s Moroccan style, all cushions against the wall.

EB: Good to talk!

MH: A lot of fans from America have been bemoaning the fact that I haven’t played there for a while now.

Mick Harvey: “We have a lot of pillows!”
Mick Harvey: “We have a lot of pillows!”

Coming up - Mick Harvey on The Birthday Party leaving Melbourne in 1980 to live in London; the differing life experiences at that time for him, Phill Calvert, and Tracy Pew, compared to Nick Cave and Rowland S Howard; the British bands - The Fall, Joy Division, Echo and the Bunnymen, Killing Joke, The Pop Group and Mark Stewart; Lindsay Gravina’s on-camera interviews; reconnecting with Thomas Wydler, Beate Bartel, and Mania D in New York; Nick Cave’s evangelical quest, and Mick’s response to the comment by producer Tony Cohen that he was the brains in the recording studio.

Mutiny In Heaven: The Birthday Party in November/December is screening across the UK. November 12 - Doc N' Roll Film Festival - Ritzy Cinema in London; November 15 in Everyman Cinemas and The Light Cinemas in Sheffield and Stockport, and on December 6 in The Poly - Cornwall.

Share this with others on...
News

Waiting to become an adult Kim Gordon on Catherine Breillat’s fairy-tale films, The Last Mistress, Samuel Kircher and Léa Drucker in Last Summer

Life in New Lodge Alessandra Celesia on capturing the stories of The Flats

'I had to hire bodyguards' Director Agnieszka Holland on the backlash to Green Border and why film can be a powerful weapon

The land remembers Simon Aeppli on the folk horror landscape of 1970s Northern Ireland

Anouk Aimée - the eternal romantic Star of A Man And A Woman takes her leave at the age of 92

A fusion of music and story Oliver Murray with Ed Bahlman on Ronnie’s, The Quiet One and They All Came Out To Montreux

Donald Sutherland dies Legendary actor leaves a remarkable legacy

More news and features

We're bringing your news, reviews and interviews from Docs Ireland and Frameline48.



We're looking forward to the Fantasia International Film Festival.



We've recently covered Sheffield DocFest, the Tribeca Film Festival, the Muslim International Film Festival, Inside Out,Cannes, Fantaspoa, Queer East, Visions du Réel and New Directors/New Films.



Read our full for more.


Visit our festivals section.

Interact

More competitions coming soon.