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| 22 November 2016 | Reply

By Shane Pinnegar


Mick Harvey is living life on the go, working on a myriad of different projects and this week brings two of them to the discerning people of Fremantle. On Wednesday, 23rd November at the Fremantle Arts Centre, Harvey and Lucky Oceans go head to head at The Sonic Sessions with an evening of music and conversation; then on Thursday 24th at the same venue, he presents his Intoxicated Man show, interpreting his translated songs of infamous French songwriter Serge Gainsbourg. SHANE PINNEGAR discussed both shows with the multi-instrumentalist, his past as a long-time Nick Cave and P J Harvey collaborator, and the voyeurism of fame.

“I’ve got a lot on the go – a little bit too much stuff,” Harvey admits, as he deals off-call with a photographer shooting his wife’s artwork. “[There’s] domestic craziness in the midst of everything as well. That’s the way it goes sometimes – you just have to deal with it, [so] I’m here preparing for a whole bunch of different stuff that I’ve got going on, including [the] shows over in Freemantle. Should be interesting.”


Interesting to say the least, and a bit of a bonanza for Mick Harvey fans, whose Gainsbourg shows are rarely performed live. His back pages as a member of Nick Cave’s Boys Next Door, The Birthday Party and The Bad Seeds, as well as a long history producing and performing with P J Harvey (no relation) will surely make the Lucky Oceans-curated Sonic Sessions a fascinating evening.

“I’ve got three different shows in four days – one back in Melbourne with a string quartet, which is a completely different program again,” he admits, a little wearily.

Is it easy to keep all that different music in your head at the same time?

“I’m used to doing it,” Harvey declares. “As long as you’re rehearsed up with it all, you can keep it all in there. There was one point last year or two years ago where I was doing about four different shows, cycling [through them]. That was pretty strange. The Gainsbourg show was one of them; I was in a theatre production in Germany; then there was a live touring version of that show with all the complete songs and a whole lot of extra stuff. There was some other show I was doing as well, probably my solo show that’s the non-Gainsbourg stuff, that I was interspersing as well – it gets a bit crazy. As long as you’re rehearsed up with it, in the cycle of doing it, you can do it all.

“It’s like repertory theatre or something. People come out and are doing six different plays. It seems a bit unbelievable. I can understand it, having done that. It’s manageable – you just compartmentalise and then keep going.

“I’ve never been short of work,” he continues. “My main objective is to reduce the amount of work I have! I’ve always got more offers than I can really manage, actually. I just didn’t used to understand that. I used to try and fit them all in. I’ve learnt that I just have to say no to some stuff because I can’t really fit it in.”

Considering his workload, it seems he’d have no regrets about leaving the hectic touring life of The Bad Seeds, which he walked away from in 2009 in frustration at the band’s direction, and with his relationship with Cave strained after almost 35 years working together.

“Certainly not about [the touring] – [but] that comes and goes, it’s not always a hectic schedule, as you’re probably aware,” says Harvey. “There’s big gaps in those things, [and] I seem to have inadvertently ended up adopting the hectic touring schedule of P J Harvey’s traveling circus, which is not that much – especially with the new album – is not that much different than the level of touring I was doing with the Bad Seeds.

“I suppose the main difference being that I’m not really involved in the management of that, [like with] all the organisation of the Bad Seeds stuff too. That was an extra thing, I suppose, to be dealing with. It’s a bit different – it’s a much more relaxed feel with the P J Harvey thing. I don’t know, it’s a very nice group of people to be working with. There’s a lot less tension and strange relations and things like that, which I appreciate enormously.”


Even a casual fan would have to agree that The Bad Seeds have always looked like they run on a certain level of angst and tension.

“It’s a bit edgy,” confirms Harvey. “It can be quite edgy. I don’t know it will be like that now – it will probably be quite different now, with circumstances as they are. There’s probably some other aspects to it there now. I’ve got no idea how that would be actually…”

Over those thirty five or so years, Harvey and Cave went from being schoolmates and choirboys, to punk rockers, through drug hell and on to being revered and respected songwriters and performers. Is it surprising to look back and see that transition play out?

“It is surprising to see the whole trajectory of the thing,” Harvey agrees thoughtfully. “My engagement with it is quite unusual too. Nick and I started out in the band together, [but] I was never the main collaborator – I was just always in the band. We weren’t even particularly close friends at first. It evolved into all sorts of things – unexpected things.

“Eventually I was, for more than a decade there, I suppose I was the musical director, the main collaborator and the main co-producer on lots of those albums. Nick and I became quite close over a long period of time. It was quite an unusual evolution and unexpected too – it wasn’t what I planned to be doing, it was never my intention to become that person. I suppose I just learned certain skills on the job and then people started deferring to my abilities or something – trusting me to be able to help the engineer or mix the album and doing all of those things. Things kept falling to me by default. I really set out to be a guitar player in a band. Maybe I didn’t even really set out to do that – that happened by accident. That is a very unusual trajectory, the whole thing I went through.”

Having led something of a wild life, especially through the band’s Berlin days, are there any areas of life that Harvey would prefer not to be grilled about in front of an audience?

“No, I don’t mind talking about anything really,” he says dismissively, “except maybe my love life. I think that one’s own domestic situation is something that’s sacrosanct. You really shouldn’t [bring it up] – that’s common for everybody. Any other things in any way that play into what I’ve done publicly, I don’t mind talking about anything…

“What people’s condition was, what people were going through, because it is all relevant in a funny way, especially when some of those things – especially some of the excess and drug use and all that stuff – is quite public. You can’t exactly then turn around and say, ‘now I don’t want to talk about it.’ You should be able to talk about it. I’ve never had a problem with that really except when other people dig [into other personal areas.]

“It’s odd too, because someone like Polly [Jean Harvey] doesn’t – she’s really very private. She doesn’t tend to do interviews. She doesn’t like people talking about her. She’s had a couple of people wanting to do biographies on her. The basic instruction [to friends and collaborators] is, ‘don’t talk to them.’ She doesn’t want that kind of thing – she’s not interested in that. She doesn’t think it’s relevant to what she’s doing artistically. She’s just not into it.

“That’s the other end of the scale. It’s very clear what it is. It’s taking what’s private and what you talk about in public to the other end of that scale and saying nothing: Give them nothing. They can have nothing. They just have the art. They just have the music. They can work that out. That’s what’s important. Nothing else is relevant to it. That’s a reasonable position too, as long as it’s clear.”


The voyeurism surrounding media interest with people in the spotlight is perverse in a lot of ways.

“Exactly. She just avoids that 100%,” says Harvey. “She’s just not interested in any of that. Whereas Nick, on the other hand, he likes a bit of public attention. He’s not the kind of celebrity that’s in the tabloids or anything like that – he doesn’t have to tolerate that level of attention, he probably wouldn’t like it if he did. He’d probably go back into his shell, actually. For his part, he likes being the centre of attention, being in the public eye, doing interviews, and being seen and stuff. Pol is quite different. When you work with different people, you have to respect their different positions. It can be quite complex at times.”

Any band who achieves a modicum of fame needs to agree amongst themselves what level of openness they will have with the media, otherwise someone is going to piss the others off very, very quickly!

“I’ve managed to never piss Polly off, as far as I’m aware,” Harvey says drolly.

Harvey published his first volume of translated Gainsbourg songs – Intoxicated Man – in 1995, and followed that with Pink Elephants in 1997. After several solo albums of his own material, another volume of Gainsbourg’s work appeared early this year – Delerium Tremens, and Volume 4 – Intoxicated Women – is released this month.

Gainsbourg was hugely popular in France, but apart from a ‘novelty’ hit with Je T’aime, his work never took off in English speaking countries. What fascinated Harvey so much about that body of work to devote such a chunk of his own solo career to it?

“I just think listening through,” he says intriguingly. “When I’d heard different albums or the compilation tapes I had from people, the quality and variety of the music that’s there was of a level that fascinated me: why wasn’t it better known, basically? I realised that it was a bit impenetrable because of the language for a lot of people because you’re just not understanding – even the basic meanings of the songs are a bit lost for most people. Whilst it’s impossible to perfectly translate these things and capture all of the nuanced aspects of Serge’s lyric writing, and all of the puns and clever word plays and so forth, I think it’s a great insight into what the songs really are to have them translated – it opens them up for people a lot.

“Even down to something as simple as, on Delirium Tremens there’s a song [about a dark skinned girl] called Coffee Colour, the original title was Couleur Café. Steve Shelly from Sonic Youth was visiting in the studio when we were recording it – he’s familiar with all Gainsbourg’s stuff, he’s a big Gainsbourg fan from way back. He heard the version of the song and he went, ‘oh wow, I just thought it was always about a café.’ That’s a perfect example of how simple it is and what a difference it makes to translate the words. Suddenly there it is – what the song is really about. It’s just a way into the music. They’re songs: one level of enjoying a song is understanding what it’s about.

“For me that just became a project. In a way, it’s the only thing I’ve done in my career that’s a side project to all the original work, the stuff that I work on with other people, and my other solo work. The Gainsbourg thing is like a separate project. The times that I’ve found time for it has just been there’s been some open space when I’ve been able to find the time to work on it. It’s kind of fun. It’s really a different sort of project.”


From personal experience it took living in France for a year in the late ‘90s to be exposed to Gainsbourg in depth and realise that he was about so much more than just Je T’aime.

“Absolutely!” Harvey exclaims. “Even that song, I did a thing at the French Institute in London… sixteen days ago. The moderator was talking about what was known of Serge back in the day, back in the late ‘60s early ‘70s. He described the success of Je T’aime in the UK, where Serge was known as this guy who had a novelty hit! Even when I was twelve or thirteen, I never thought of that song as being a novelty song, [but] I guess a lot of people did perceive it that way. There, in itself, is another great irony because even Je T’aime, whilst on the surface being this sexy, erotic song playing to the crowd and ramping up the cliché view of the French, in the midst of it all the lyrical content is actually a typical Serge thing, where it all flips on its head right from the beginning. ‘I love you – nor do I.’ It’s all about the emptiness of physical love ultimately.”

To many of us that is an erotic and intriguing and clever song, but to staid and conservative 1960’s Britain, it probably would have been seen as a smutty novelty.

“I guess they did but I don’t think I ever did – that’s just me. I just thought what a fantastic piece of music, and then some. Whatever there is going on in all the erotic nature of the presentation and everything, I found that amusing I guess. I never really though of it as a novelty song. The point is once you translate it and you go into what it’s really about, it’s actually much more complex than that. That’s the superficial aspect of the song and something which you can still engage with even when you do see what a lot of the lyrics are really saying.

“The thing with Gainsbourg is there’s almost always other levels that he’s playing with. It’s not just one simplistic idea that’s presented and that’s it – there’s almost always a twist in there somewhere.”

Gainsbourg was wilfully challenging to the mainstream, and a bit of a madcat in his personal and public life. Getting back to the voyeurism of fame which we were talking about, the media focused on his eccentricities to the point where it – for many – overshadowed his talent as a songwriter and a lyricist.

“I think he really started playing that up later in the piece,” ponders Harvey, “around the time that he started seeing that doing things like that garnered attention. He’d spent a good ten years trying to get attention for his songwriting and his career by the normal means. He was just a songwriter who took his craft pretty seriously and wanted to be successful. Even then, he did do a few cheeky things along the way like Les Sucette, the song that [teenager] France Gall did, basically a song about fellatio, which he slipped into her repertoire. She didn’t realise what the song was about – it’s all metaphors for it and so forth. That was in his nature.

“I think he started playing that up more and more as time went by. I think he invented this character that was this drunkard called Gainsbarre. He made a bit of a spectacle of himself for the last ten or something years of his life. I think he found that was a way to get attention for his work where it had continually failed over the years. He felt very frustrated on his own solo career for a long time. He wasn’t getting the success that he felt that he should be getting. Ultimately, he did the Melody Nelson album, which he thought was his great work and his masterpiece, [but] it was, commercially, a complete failure. After that, he really went into Gainsbarre as an attention-seeking method. I don’t find it very interesting to be honest. What I thought was interesting was his songs.”


And with that we’re interrupted with a family crisis, which an apologetic Harvey has to go and deal with, our thoughts with him and his family.

Don’t miss Mick Harvey at The Fremantle Arts Centre Wednesday, 23 November, 2016 for The Sonic Sessions with Lucky Oceans, and Thursday, 24 November for his Intoxicated Man: The songs of Serge Gainsbourg show.

Category: Interviews

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