Mick Harvey, multi-instrumentalist, composer, arranger and producer, likes to keep on top of things. Since exiting the Bad Seeds in 2009, he’s busied himself with production, working on PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake, releasing an album of his own, 2011’s Sketches From the Book of the Dead, as well as, somewhat perversely, working on reissues of Bad Seeds albums. Mick Harvey’s next record Four (Acts of Love), his seventh to date, is released by the UK label Mute Records on April 29.
Recorded with regular collaborators Rosie Westbrook on double bass and JP Shilo on guitar and violin, the record is something of a Chinese box. Divided into three “acts”, each section is bookended by a song that will later be reprised. Anyone expecting a multi-part prog nightmare can rest easy – the 14-tightly-arranged songs clock in at around 36 minutes.
Mick Harvey is affable and disarming, initially chatting about the weather and mocking the state of his bed hair. “I don’t look my best but I don’t really care,” he says laughing. He punctuates a lot of his statements with laughter, perhaps in an attempt not to come across as overly earnest about his latest release, which, it transpires has been percolating for a number of years.
With the new album there’s a cyclical thing going on. While I hate to use the word “concept” it seems like it’s a meditation on the subject of love …
Mick Harvey: Well I think that it’s certainly an investigation on that. I wouldn’t go as far as a meditation. It’s certainly meditative at times, but it’s more of an investigation around the things surround that as a subject. It’s such a common theme in music, in western music anyway. The great thing about love as a subject is that it does shed light on larger issues, the big issues.
So by investigating that and taking a look at something that is so affecting, to the individual and the community is a good subject too, as well as romantic love, which is broader … Maybe “concept album” is a bit strong! I think the last two albums I’ve done have been thematic albums, so it’s a thematic one rather than conceptual! [Laughs]
But there is a cycle and a structure there?
I suppose to some degree it’s a song cycle, which is a fairly obvious thing to do in a way about the subject. I suppose my investigation into what it means is a little broader and little more questioning than simply a collection of love songs. To some degree it’s also a questioning of the whole process [of falling in love]. I find that love is invoked a lot of times as a general cure-all or it’s just referred to or used a little bit too casually. That’s a little band aid on everything to make everything better.
What’s going on is constantly being questioned all the way through the album even with [penultimate track] Fairy Dust and [sixth track] God Made the Hammer … in lots of the songs there’s a kind of flip side. A question being asked about what this broader thing is all about, rather than just a simple answer.
Whereas love songs can act as a kind of band-aid or a quick fix for something …?
MH: In terms of it being “love is the answer and love is everything”, it’s trotted out relentlessly. I was talking about this the other day in a coffee shop when this song came on, [Neil Young’s] Love And Only Love … it’s a good song actually. And I think Neil Young’s talking about a broader kind of love there –love between people and communities. Which is a very valid thing for humankind to nurture and hold on to.
You’ve picked four songs to reinterpret for this album. How do these songs fit in with the overall theme?
The songs that I’ve chosen suggested the theme and from there the notion to turn it into a song cycle kind of came from that. I’d had Praise the Earth from a while ago and God Made the Hammer … I had all this four years ago, but I put it aside to do the Sketches From the Book of the Dead album and then came back to this. In a way this this is like the last album of this lot, the third album …
Everything from One Man’s Treasure onwards has had a numerical title, with the exception of Book of the Dead. Two of Diamonds, Three Sisters [live album] and now Four (Acts of Love)…
It’s kind of the third studio album from that lot, even though it’s the fourth … like Scott Walker 4 or Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth one …
Huey Lewis and the News’ Fore?
It was their fourth one but it’s spelt F-O-R-E.
I’m in good company then! For me, this album is a kind of a culmination of what I was doing and so right now I can’t really imagine what I’ll do next. In a way, this album is like a finalisation of that ongoing project.
Will you be doing any live shows?
I’m hoping to do some shows in Europe in May and in Australia when I get back in June. The last album’s prospects for touring got a bit derailed by being on tour with Polly [PJ Harvey – as part of the live band for the Let England Shake tour]. I hadn’t really played the album live properly …
Did the song Glorious develop from this tour?
No, it was a song from one of Polly’s demos which she didn’t record. She did a solo tour after White Chalk and did about five or six shows over here. Just playing totally solo stuff, really fantastic shows. She asked me to open for her, so I got Rosie Westbrook along to play double bass with me and I ended up playing about four or five unreleased PJ Harvey songs! It was a bit of a treat for anyone who came to hear those I guess. Glorious was one of those and it just so happened that what Glorious was about fit with what I was doing.
You’re coming over to the UK in May. Are there plans for any other shows while you’re here?
After ATP I’m planning to do an album launch at the Lexington, booked for the next day [May 5, 2013].
What have you got planned for ATP?
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs invited me to come and do a set based on the Serge Gainsbourg albums I’d done [Intoxicated Man and Pink Elephants]. I’d never actually done any live shows for those albums so that might be quite fun to do now! It’ll be funny. I could wear a beret, play the accordion …
An accordion might work actually.
Now you mention it … [Laughs] Let’s not get carried away because that might actually happen! But that’s a very different thing to what I’m doing with my solo stuff.
So do you play the majority of the instruments on this album?
No, no it’s very sparse sometimes. JP Shilo’s playing violin or guitar and Rosie’s playing double bass. A few tracks I’m playing keyboards and there’s at least one guitar plus any percussion that might be there. There’s not a lot of drums on the album.
It’s very open and empty in places which gives it a cinematic feel. Was this a conscious thing given your background in soundtrack work?
I think that’s my tendency! With a lot of stuff I’ve done, cinematic is something people often use as a description for what I do. I don’t mind that description. A lot of people might find that too casual. But that’s good, if it’s working like that, if it’s got that largeness rather than just being a rock or pop song. I’m trying to create an atmosphere I suppose instead of music that belongs to any particular genre, rather than just working out a bass, drums, guitar type of arrangement.
But at the same time it’s not a soundtrack or ambient album?
MH: No. It’s very much song-based still. Summertime in New York is, to some degree almost like a noisy jazz band or something. But that’s very much a deliberate choice to make that song like that. And something like The Story of Love sounds all along like it’ll be a straightforward song but then the drums come in right at the end. So for that part it’s almost like a full band is playing, in the context of the record. End of Act Two. The band finally comes in. You get the outro so you know that song could’ve turned out like that all along!
by Thomas Newton
Four (Acts of Love) is being released by Mute Records on April 29