As a member of Melbourne new wave band The Boys Next Door, Howard received acclaim for writing their underground hit, the ballad “Shivers”(later covered by the Australian rock groups No and Screaming Jets). When the band evolved into The Birthday Party Howard’s aggressive use of distortion and audio feedback was one distinctive element in the group’s “assault”on their audience.
The Birthday Party relocated from their native Melbourne, Australia to London, UK in 1980 and subsequently to Berlin, Germany in 1982, where they became a progressively experimental group, in part due to their art rock leanings, which were developed in the band’s formative years.
In interviews with former members of the Birthday Party, Howard’s songwriting was described as more precious and stolid than that of Cave and Mick Harvey, and that his music is generally built up around a bassline.
The Birthday Party’s performances were confronting and provocative in the manner of bands such as The Stooges, The Contortions, PiL, Pere Ubu, Throbbing Gristle and The Pop Group. Their live shows in London were often scenes of drug-fuelled violence. The Birthday Party’s records, considered by many of their fans to be avant-garde cultural artifacts, were released by Missing Link Records. Howard and Cave had creative differences and Howard then left the Birthday Party to become a member of Crime and the City Solution, a band led by Simon Bonney, and later formed These Immortal Souls with Genevieve McGuckin, Harry Howard, and Epic Soundtracks.
Howard has also collaborated with multi-media artist Lydia Lunch, Nikki Sudden, Jeremy Gluck, Kas Produkt, Barry Adamson, Einst?rzende Neubauten, Chris Haskett, Jeffrey Lee Pierce, Fad Gadget, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Henry Rollins, and A.C. Marias. His distinctive style of technically limited, audio feedback-laden, blues guitar playing is regarded very highly by aficionados of the Southern Gothic-inspired rock and in 2005, was described by Sam Agostino of Digger and the Pussycats as “one of the most influential indie guitarists ever.”
Lydia Lunch and Thurston Moore recorded a sultry, slinky version of Howard’s song “Still Burning”(“I catch most things in my blood you all lose between rooms”) for Lunch’s In Limbo (1984) mini-album. Still Burning had previously been recorded as a bass-heavy track with Howard on vocals, during the Honeymoon In Red recording sessions (1983-1987).
The Howard-Lunch collaborations saw Howard’s singing and guitar playing moving into Lunch’s lyrical obsessions such as retribution and murder, sparser arrangements, and in the case of the track “Dead In The Head”, sung by Nick Cave and Lunch, Howard’s furious guitar playing acknowledging that of Teenage Jesus & the Jerks, while remaining unmistakably his own style. Lunch and Howard sang duets on Howard’s foreboding song “Come Fall”(“I am king, I can do anything, come follow me, come fall with me”) and cover of Lee Hazlewood’s “Some Velvet Morning,”which was released as a 12-inch single with the catchy B-side “I Fell In Love With A Ghost”, written by Lunch and Howard and sung by Lunch.
Both Howard and Lunch used the bare minimum of MTV-style music video to promote their work, preferring to concentrate on the process of their work, and largely relying on word-of-mouth endorsement as marketing. Originally, Honeymoon in Red and In Limbo were released on Lunch’s privately-owned record label, Widowspeak Productions. Their records were usually only available through specialist record bars.
The Howard-Nikki Sudden collaboration consisted of Howard contributing to Nikki Sudden and the Jacobites albums and Howard and Sudden releasing the unplugged album Kiss You Kidnapped Charabanc (1987). Jeremy Gluck also worked with Sudden and Howard on the Burning Skulls Rise album (1988). A notable song to emerge from this era is the mellow Death Is Hanging Over Me (Sudden). An anthemic version of Burning Skulls Rise (Gluck, et al) appeared on 1992’s Shotgun Wedding.
These Immortal Souls released their first album Get Lost, (Don’t Lie!) in 1987 and held successful “gigs”in Europe and America, only returning to Australia for a short tour in 1988. Only two music videos by These Immortal Souls were broadcast on the ABC music video show Rage. The songs were “Marry Me (Lie! Lie!)”from the first album and “King of Kalifornia”, from the second album.
Get Lost, (Don’t Lie!) was at the time of its release said to be a latter-day Birthday Party, although apart from the thumping bass on the song “I Ate The Knife”, the album was closer to dream pop with McGuckin’s swirling organ playing and Soundtracks’ and Harry Howard’s frolicking rhythms sweetening the effect.
After the release of These Immortal Souls’ second album, I’m Never Gonna Die Again, (1992) and another Howard/Lunch collaboration Shotgun Wedding, Howard, Lunch and members of The Beasts Of Bourbon performed live on tour in Australia and Europe. Shotgun Wedding was re-released with a second Compact disc of live recordings. Shotgun Wedding was a swaggering rock ‘n’ roll album featuring covers of Led Zeppelin’s “In My Time of Dying”and Alice Cooper’s “Black Juju”.
As with Honeymoon In Red, the songs co-written by Lunch and Howard on Shotgun Wedding toyed with the erotics of violence and the poetics of unhappy occasions, albeit with driving rhythms and attractive guitar hooks. “Burning Skulls”had Lunch singing “They’re coming for me now, nothing scares me anyhow, “and “I’m gonna let this one rip, I’m on another fucked up trip”. These songs were released shortly after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, also at a time of waning fashionability of machismo in Western countries, and they demonstrated that Howard and Lunch were reflecting on realistic issues rather than strictly narcissistic concerns.
An exception was Incubator, (Howard/Lunch), a song that elegaically harked back to the melodic dirges of Honeymoon in Red, and seemed to have a jaundiced relation in So The Story Goes, on I’m Never Gonna Die Again.
Howard sang backing vocals on the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album Let Love In (1994). Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds was a prominent band in Australia throughout the 1990s, complemented by the success of peers such as The Dirty Three, You Am I, Ed Kuepper and The Cruel Sea. These bands were playing to wider audiences through music festivals such as The Big Day Out, and supported by the newly nationwide Australian youth radio broadcaster Triple J, an arm of the ABC. Howard was in the public’s peripheral vision as a part of this cultural force.
In 1995 These Immortal Souls contributed their version of “You Can’t Unring a Bell”to a Tom Waits tribute album Step Right Up, somewhat incongruously alongside very earnest acts such as Pete Shelley, Tim Buckley,Violent Femmes and 10,000 Maniacs.
Paul Godfrey a.k.a. Epic Soundtracks, the outstanding drummer for These Immortal Souls was found dead in his London apartment on November 5, 1997, shortly after a relationship break-up, a successful tour and the release of the third of his accomplished solo albums. The cause of death was not determined despite an autopsy, and was rumoured to be suicide and / or a drug overdose although such claims have never been credibly substantiated, and have been rebutted as “scurrilous”by his brother, Nikki Sudden. Liner notes on the I’m Never Gonna Die Again (1992) Compact disc indicate that These Immortal Souls were not anticipating that they would record their next album with Epic Soundtracks.
Howard lamented in a 1999 television interview (Studio 22, ABCTV (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)) with Clinton Walker that people still asked him about “Shivers”, a song he wrote when he was sixteen years old which first became well known when it was sung by Nick Cave. Cave had by this time won a long-standing reputation for his macabre writings and his gruff, charismatic stage presence. Conversely, the guttural voiced Howard’s plaintive ballads are often flavoured with cryptic puns and quixotic crooning.
Howard released a well received solo album called Teenage Snuff Film in 2000. These recordings were brasher and more guitar focussed than the elegantly orchestrated atmospheric work of Crime and the City Solution and These Immortal Souls in the 1980s.
One of The Birthday Party’s most raucous songs Release the Bats was used in the popular true crime film Chopper (2000), a box office success in Australia.
An unofficial Rowland S. Howard fan website was established as the amount of Rowland S. Howard related information and file swapping grew steadily on the internet from the mid 1990s.
Howard cameod in the 2002 vampire movie Queen of the Damned as a musician in a vampire club band.
Currently, Rowland S. Howard lives in Melbourne, Australia and produces and performs occasionally, to the delight of a small, self-renewing audience who consider Howard to be a member of Australian underground rock royalty.
September 2007 sees Rowland S. Howard joining forces with Australian rock legends Magic Dirt and Beasts of Bourbon for what will be a tour of the east coast of Australia.