Released just over 20 years ago in Australia, Rowland S. Howard’s debut solo album, Teenage Snuff Film, has long been considered a cult classic for both its scarcity and brilliance.
Besides a few ultra-limited, Aussie-only reissues and a small run in the UK, the record has spent most of its existence out-of-print and completely unavailable anywhere… Until now. This month, RSH’s highly-sought-after, stripped-down masterpiece will finally be made available to the waiting world.
The following is an exclusive, behind-the-scenes look at Teenage Snuff Film, what led up to it and what followed, told through the words and perspectives of Rowland’s dearest and most frequent collaborators, friend Mick Harvey and brother, Harry Howard.
Rowland S. Howard’s music career began in Melbourne, Australia, first with the Young Charlatans, then as a guitarist and songwriter for The Boys Next Door. Together with Nick Cave, Mick Harvey, Tracy Pew, and Phil Calvert, the band would eventually change their name to The Birthday Party, generating a notorious reputation as an unhinged, punk band with dark, gothic leanings. Relocating to London, then Berlin, Howard’s role as a guitarist and songwriter was integral to the band’s sound. A troubled troubadour armed with a heavy-handed guitar that allowed for a cathartic balance to his fragility, his songs emanated from a bleeding heart, while his guitar summoned shrieking feedback like it was hardwired to the nerve endings of a panic attack. If Howard’s words were his fears and tears, his guitars were his screams. In time, his dark songs grew too far removed for Nick Cave to sing, and the two parted ways, with Howard joining Crime and The City Solution alongside his brother and Harry Howard.
‘It was my feeling that he needed to be doing something different,’ says former Bad Seeds guitarist Mick Harvey. ‘It was just a continuation of the situation with The Birthday Party. What he needed to do was branch out and do his own thing, so to me, it seemed odd that he’d go and put himself in that position again. But he was a bit like that at times. He wasn’t that decisive and he’d sort of waver and spend a lot of his time being indecisive. Eventually, he broke off from Crime and the City Solution and took a few of the members with him and finally started his own band, which had obviously been on his mind since about ‘81 or something.’
The resulting group became known as These Immortal Souls, and for the first time, Rowland Howard was singing his own songs front and centre. ‘It was always Rowland writing,’ Harvey adds. ‘In his late teens and 20s he was writing a lot of stuff and I think he just became a lot fussier about what he was happy with. He also had three or four years there with the Birthday Party where his main focus was taken away from what he might do himself as a writer and singer. It took him a while to find his own style again after that. Once he began These Immortal Souls, I think he needed to find the type of songs that he wanted to write, much like Nick had to do when he started the Bad Seeds. The first These Immortal Souls album is really him trying to find his new direction and his new way of writing songs that he wanted to present; it’s is a bit of a stepping-stone. The first These Immortal Souls album is actually a Rowland S. Howard album with some musicians he was working with—like the Bad Seeds was for Nick. But he didn’t want to play it that way and that was his decision. And the second album, his writing has really come together. There are so many great things on that record.’
But after releasing just two records in five years, the band’s momentum began to slow. ‘These Immortal Souls wasn’t going so well,’ says brother and former band member, Harry Howard. ‘As time went by, the group had a kind of shambling career. Epic Soundtracks left and we all moved back to Melbourne. Yes, we were talking about doing another album and there was talk about getting Lee Ranaldo, and we’ve got these songs, but it was winding down and Australia is a very small market. We were running into problems because Mute [Records] wasn’t happy that we were living in Australia and they weren’t sure about financing a recording from a place so remote. We hadn’t had a perfect record with recording budgets either; we’d been involved in a couple of aborted recorded sessions. Everything seemed to start winding down, but Rowland still had a lot of interest from people in Melbourne who really wanted to work with him. He realised he had this opportunity to start something new and that he could get reasonable finance for it quite easily. So yeah, he basically broke up These Immortal Souls and focused on doing Teenage Snuff Film. I think the whole thing looked too good to resist. He could keep working and it would be fresh and he could work with different musicians whom he admired.’
It was around that time that Mick Harvey received a phone call. ‘One day he just called me up and asked me if I would be interested in playing drums on this record,’ says Harvey. ‘It had been difficult between us, really since The Birthday Party broke up. He always perceived that Nick [Cave] and I had just continued on without him, which wasn’t really how we saw it. So there was a kind of resentment there and he was still upset about it. I think the personal difficulties between us had just kind of been there— a bit like the elephant in the room kind of thing—so I think he thought I might say “no” actually. But he misjudged that; I was very happy to go in and work with him. I thought it would be interesting to play drums and collaborate and see what we could come up with. I did have to pause for a few seconds and quickly make an assessment of the situation. Just expect nothing. Don’t expect to be paid. Don’t expect anything. Just do the music. So I said “yes.”‘
Eventually, producer Lindsay Gravina’s Birdland studio was settled upon for the recording. ‘It’s kind of a funny story actually,’ Harvey notes. ‘I think the Hungry Ghosts got Rowland to produce their album at Lindsay’s studio, and Rowland’s fee for being the producer was basically traded off for studio time. So he gave him some days in the studio on the basis that he hadn’t been paid to do this record. I don’t know the specifics, but there was some bartering program going on there among the musicians.’
Starting the session with just drums and guitar, Rowland and Mick began laying down some barebones tracks that evoked a haunting sort of desolation right from the start. ‘I can’t remember how many days we did the basic tracks,’ said Harvey. ‘I think we recorded 11 or 12 songs. We recorded a version of “Shivers” too, which still hasn’t come out. And we recorded another song, which was on the B-side. We powered through it and found a bit of a groove and started putting songs down. I think the next week we got Brian Hooper in, and we would have done “Sleep Alone” and “Exit Everything” with him. So it was all pretty quick. I may have played an acoustic guitar on one track and a keyboard on something else, but basically I left him to it after that.’
While the guitars on Teenage Snuff Film are distinctly Rowland’s, the primarily barren instrumentation strays from the controlled chaos and harnessed feedback that characterised Howard’s guitar playing to that point. For the first time, his lyrics had found their way to the forefront, no longer fighting against his own dissonance and distortion to be heard. ‘As a songwriter, he didn’t want to obliterate everything with noise and feedback; he just wanted to sing,’ says Harvey laughing. ‘He’s going to leave a lot of space for his own singing. I think he was less inclined to do that when Nick [Cave] was singing, but when he sings, he’s quite happy to leave some space. I think a lot of the differences between These Immortal Souls and the solo stuff is that we kept everything really sparse. There was just a huge space for Rowland to sing. It was very open and cinematic. Rowland could just play solo on his guitar and sing, and I wasn’t going to take up the space.’
Just by naming an album Teenage Snuff Film, Howard set a certain tone even before first listen. Obviously it’s not going to be filled with summery pop songs. ‘I think he just found it really tasteless and very funny,’ says Harvey. ‘I think in his mind it was some kind of soundtrack, and it certainly is quite cinematic, but it’s certainly not like some sort of schlock B-movie. I think it was just a deliberate poor taste joke. It was a moment of perversity. He had those.’
If the title doesn’t get you first, the record’s mood should creep in by the end of the first few stanzas. From the opening line of “Dead Radio”—You’re bad for me like cigarettes/But I haven’t sucked enough of you yet—there’s inherent darkness and impending doom that emanates from the simple guitar plucks, with tension quickly escalating when the string section enters.
‘It had a different gravitas than what he had been doing previously,’ Harry Howard notes. ‘Some of the songs were These Immortal Souls songs and others definitely weren’t. I think because it was a solo record, he approached it so differently arrangement-wise and it just sounded completely different. He spent a hell of a lot of time arranging it, and it’s got all the strings. I think not having the keyboards gave a lot of air to his guitar, which sounded so incredibly good with that space around it. He had a different kind of drive back when he was back in Australia for a little while, I think. He had been living a very isolated life in London and it opened up a little for him and he wanted to make his stamp. I think what he wanted to be had changed slightly. That record was all part of it.’
‘As much as he isn’t credited as a co-producer on the record, I know full well he was co-producing the record,’ Harvey notes. ‘You couldn’t make a record with Rowland without him putting all of his ideas and opinions into the pot. It’s credited to Lindsay Gravina, but it was obvious that Rowland was producing it as well. And if Rowland was happy with how it was sounding, then that was fine by me. I knew that Rowland was there and I knew he was going to be more exacting about it than me. It was his album in the end.’
While Rowland had been a respected songwriter throughout his career, Teenage Snuff Film marked his first solo album in his two decades as a musician, and lyrically he was at his best. Ranging from lethargic spoken word to agitated confessions of wrongdoing, the album’s tone ranges from vengeful to regretful, seemingly following the mood swings of the main character and creating an intoxicating intensity and emotional rollercoaster throughout.
‘It’s really halfway between the first These Immortal Souls and Teenage Snuff Film that his writing had really found its direction,’ Harvey notes. ‘It’s a very strong record. That’s just the journey, you know—and the writer, I guess. Teenage Snuff Film is really the peak of that. I think he’s found his voice and it’s a very confident presentation. Ironically, it’s at the same time that people have drifted off and lost interest in him, so it’s quite bizarre really.’
Harry Howard witnessed a similar lull in popularity. ‘Look, Australia is a very strange place. It can just take people for granted. Musicians that everyone knows are great, they’re just taken for granted. They know that they’re there, and they’re just not excited by it. It just becomes like part of the landscape. Rowland was always, in the underground level, the genius who played guitar in The Birthday Party. It was always the least he would be. He had this incredible thing going for him. His reputation was quite exciting itself, but people were taking him for granted. So he went through that period where he did all those solo shows, and it was all young people going to see him. But everybody knew he was fantastic.’
While the inability to find the record didn’t help matters, it surely added to the legend that was Rowland S. Howard. It would be another ten years before Howard would release his second solo record. With his health wavering from cirrhosis of the liver, Pop Crimes was released in October 2009 to critical acclaim. Rowland passed away just two months later.
‘When he put out Pop Crimes, it was this really natural surge. Everybody who liked Rowland—there wasn’t any kind of focus or anything, and there hadn’t been for so long—they all focused. And suddenly he was incredibly popular and he wasn’t playing to just a few people in the pub. He had this massive surge of interest internationally. His solo records were so good and his reputation was so incredible that you just couldn’t ignore the fact. It just all lit up at the same time. If he hadn’t been sick, he would have done a lot of more and would have been touring to this day.’
Today Harry Howard performs as Harry Howard and the NDE while Mick Harvey continues to release solo records on Mute. The two recently joined forces to play a few Pop Crimes tribute shows in Europe—Nick Cave, Lydia Lunch, Bobby Gillespie and Mona Soyoc all appeared as special guests.