Music & clubs

Mick Harvey: Not such a bad seed

Guess who's joining PJ Harvey for her two upcoming shows? Not only did he produce and perform on her new record, Let England Shake, Harvey is also preparing a release of his own.

Image for Mick Harvey: Not such a bad seed
Photo by Eran Yardeni

Mick Harvey will make a special guest appearance with PJ Harvey for her forthcoming shows at the Admiralspalast. The former Bad Seed, who wrote lyrical scores for iconic Australian films Ghosts… of the Civil Dead (1988) and Chopper (2000), is releasing his new album Sketches from the Book of the Dead on April 29. EXBERLINER dove into the archives to uncover this gem from November 2006.

‘I found out too late about the photographer. I have only arrived this morning from San Francisco and I don’t have my sunglasses.’

Although he spent the last ten hours on the plane, Mick is relaxed inside the offices of Mute Records in Kreuzberg 36. Wearing a crisp suit, his body towered over mine while his raised eyebrows greeted me with a satirical smile. ‘I am in Berlin for one night only, then tomorrow I fly to Barcelona then off to the South of France.’

Although Berlin isn’t home any more for Mick Harvey, it is still a favourite stopover in between tours, work assignments and musical collaborations with ‘local stars such as Alexander Hacke and Thomas Wydler.’

To many, the international jetsetter Mr. Mick Harvey, ‘the intoxicated man’, needs no introduction. His musical career stretches back to the days with Boys Next Door, which later became The Birthday Party. With their raw energy, non-conformist stage shows and sounds of post-punk ethos they shocked London in the early 1980s. In 1983, The Birthday Party dismantled and Mick Harvey stood by his old school friend, the lead singer Nick Cave, and moved to West Berlin to form Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds.

Widely respected as a multi-talented musician, producer, and composer on the international music scene, Mick Harvey is always busy. If he isn’t on tour with his own entourage or recording ballads with Nick Cave or love songs with rock chick PJ Harvey, Mick is composing for films. His second, just-released compilation CD of this kind, titled Motion Picture Music 94-05, contains, according to Mick, ‘Things that haven’t been released before. Although I have written music for so many films, such as To Have and To Hold, Australian Rules, and Ghosts … of the Civil Dead, this new CD presents stuff from over the years that is not available.

‘In 1996, I composed music for Sparrow, a short film by Australian director Polly Watkins. This film was only seen at international festivals. There are two tracks from Sparrow on the new CD. A lot of the material I have composed has been used in TV productions, current affairs shows or documentaries. With this CD I wanted to make some of this material more available because it’s a luxury now, producing CDs. Let’s face it, most end up in the bin, don’t they?’

Let’s hope this one won’t, as it contains 27 poignant and generously crafted tracks from: Lighting Fires (1994), about Sydney-born painter Tim Storrier, Chopper (2000), about Australia’s ex-criminal Chopper Read, The Man Who Made History (2004), a BBC documentary about photographer Frank Hurley, and Rosehill (2002), a German-Hungarian co-production.

The CD’s last four atmospheric gems hail from the road movie produced by Wim Wenders, Go for Gold! (1997). The wildest one is the very last track, ‘The Farewell Song’, sung by Nick Cave with the fury of a true gypsy to the mad violin cords played by Dirty Three’s Warren Ellis. ‘This was released in Spain for TV, and it was shown only once. The story is about gypsies and I wanted a wild gypsy sound inspired by the music of the Romanian group Taraf de Haiduci. I cannot play gypsy music, but this band inspired me a great deal, so I composed my own version of mad gypsy sounds.’

For their films, directors have to find Mick, the composer, and that is how Mr. Harvey fell upon this career with passion. ‘Friends ask me to be involved, but I haven’t always said yes as I don’t do everything that comes along. Some films are not right for me and I find it hard to immerse myself if I am not 100 percent into it. Most directors have their lists of composers they want. I am lucky to be on some of those lists.

‘After that the process is easy. Once the film is made I watch the rough cut and contemplate where music should be, and through the process of elimination the soundtrack composes itself, but I have to feel my way with it. I love to have full control of the music in the film, especially when songs are being used and I think about how accidental music affects the atmosphere it gives to the film.

‘Often I believed that I used too much music, but others I spoke to didn’t. In Sergio Leone’s classics, the music came first, which is a good idea, but nowadays, directors don’t have the time to work like this. All musicians love composing for films and many like Neil Young and Bob Dylan, whose songs really fit, get reeled into it.’

Mick Harvey has learnt his craft by being a film connoisseur. His music elevates the film’s story; layers of many intricate instruments compose the songs. Their sounds are minimal, never intrusive, yet are able to create atmospheric and emotional dimensions that give the listener goose bumps.

A few years ago, I lived at Mick’s Berlin flat while he was on a world tour with The Bad Seeds. Engrossed in his video and music collection, I don’t think I ever left the flat during those months, and my own knowledge flourished. I felt so blessed that I left his house spotless. ‘I’ve never seen this flat so clean and intact. Last time when Nick and other expats stayed here, the door was smashed as they always lost their keys,’ he exclaimed. But Mick’s anger was always short-lived, and he never jumped off The Bad Seeds’ stage.

When composing for the screen or for the stage, Mick sees parallels in his working process. ‘Writing for someone’s scenes or words is the same. I choose the things that work and I never just throw tunes in there for the sake of it. It can weaken the products. Songs should add to the power of films, so they must be well placed. For the many bands I worked with, I was mainly in charge of the instrumental arrangements and placing the beats, whereas my film music is all written by me.

‘I don’t co-write songs with bands any more. I just provide the appropriate rhythms. The Bad Seeds are meant to release a new CD next year but I don’t know when. I haven’t heard any of Nick’s new songs (if he has written any) because he has been busy with other projects and his family.’

Mick Harvey has come along way since the first soundtrack he composed for a Berlin based production, Totes Geld (1987), that was recorded inside a studio near the Wall in Kreuzberg 36. Over the next few months, he will be a jet-setter promoting his CD; it will be available in Europe and Australia but not in America, as ‘the industry over there has culturally and morally cut itself off from the rest of the world.’

But he’ll be busy also with an orchestra and a house band performing Serge Gainsbourg’s Hotel Particular at London’s Barbican. ‘You can’t go wrong singing that because it is a mumbling song. This event is a tribute performance to Serge’s album Melody Nelson. The house band will have original session musicians who played on the making of this album. Some of them are still alive. And when he overcomes his jet lag once again, he will be back Down Under for his first Australian solo tour. It will be a ‘major one’.

Mick Harvey’s new album Sketches from the Book of the Dead will be released on April 29