“That’s the question I’ve been answering for twenty years,” the Australian songwriter, producer, and guitarist laughs. “Let’s just say it was lost in the mists of time for this interview.”
Even if the “when” is a little murky, the “where” sticks out in Harvey’s mind. He first heard Gainsbourg’s music in West Berlin, where he’d moved from Melbourne with his musical partner Nick Cave (with whom he’d formed The Birthday Party and The Bad Seeds) in 1982, discovering the singular provocateur and balladeer’s music among French exiles there.
“It was a kind of international city,” Harvey says.
Those recordings made an impact. In the mid-’90s, Harvey launched his solo career with two albums of Gainsbourg covers: 1996’s Intoxicated Man and ’97’s Pink Elephants. Two decades later, he’s returned to Serge’s work with Delirium Tremens, a twelve-song collection that veers from clanging post-punk (“SS C’est Bon)” to tender ballads (“The Decadance”) to bouncy, spy-thriller pop (“A Day Like Any Other”).
For Harvey, the chance to dive into the varied catalog of Gainsbourg offers a break from his normal work, typified by the deep and intense Sketches from the Book of the Dead from 2011 and 2013’s Four (Acts of Love).
“The Gainsbourg project feels like something a little bit outside myself; it’s not a highly personalized thing,” he says.
You kicked off your solo career with two albums of Gainsbourg covers. What inspired your decision to return to his work with Delirium Tremens?
Oh, I don’t know if I’d call it inspiration. [Laughs.] The original albums were put together and [reissued] two years ago. I’d never played any shows [of the Gainsbourg songs] and it seemed like a good opportunity to do that. Doing those shows was an unexpectedly enjoyable undertaking; I thought it might be arduous and difficult, but some of the songs are very easy to project out there. I was quite happy to be an entertainer, which doesn’t always come naturally to me. So it just started to come up among different [people I was playing with]: “Oh, have you thought about doing some more [Gainsbourg covers]?” It was mentioned enough times I thought maybe I should— it would be very funny.
I don’t speak French but—
Well, then, the translations are perfect! [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] But Gainsbourg is a singular kind of writer. Is translating his lyrics into English a difficult process?
You have to give his lyrics their due, not cut any corners or be lazy with it. I think a lot of people are like that with translations. They feel like they can be very loose with it. But [Gainsbourg’s] lyrics are very elemental and to do that would be doing a disservice, and I’m certainly not here to do that.
Gainsbourg contains multitudes. He’s kind of like Bowie or Prince in that way. There are all these different “Serge Gainsbourgs” within his catalog.
“I’m never very interested in people using accepted and understood genres.”
A lot of that is because he wasn’t particularly worried about style or the genre these songs were going to be presented in. He was just interested in being as successful as possible. He kept opting for the fashionable production style that was happening at the time, and he hired producers and arrangers who would put his songs into that form. He was concerned with writing the songs—that’s what he was interested in. And beyond that, apart from a period in the late ’60s where he may have taken more control, you do get a multitude of different Gainsbourgs, especially toward the end when he decided to invoke some artificial personae.
There’s a wealth of styles in his catalog—from traditional pop to orchestrated art rock to reggae. So many stylistic shades. Was that an attraction for you to his music early on?
Not specifically, no. In fact, the more genre-affected musics are not so interesting to me. I’m never very interested in people using accepted and understood genres. It’s like painting by numbers—you’re not being very original most of the time. I’ve spent my career searching for ways to blend forms, finding ways to make the music interesting and challenging and different sounding. Some of those things are actually a bit of a barrier for me as far as Gainsbourg, but like I said, his concern was the song, and I’m able to hear through to what he’d really written there. Most of the time—not all of it, I must say. The period that’s most interesting to me is that late ’60s/early ’70s period, where he’s being more consciously original.
With records like Histoire de Melody Nelson and Rock Around the Bunker he seemed to be interested in—
You can put them in the same sentence? Wow! [Laughs.] That’s quite an achievement.
[Laughs.] I just mean he was interested in creating “conceptual” works.
Suddenly it switched to the age when lots of people were doing concept records, so he came out with Melody Nelson and The Man With the Cabbage Head (L’Homme à Tête de Chou) and Rock Around the Bunker, which was deliberately kind of bad-taste provocative and off-color. I think that was also him following the trends, but there was no specific stylistic guideline for what the music should be. It was very open. There was no template. [That led to him] being more original. Obviously, Rock Around the Bunker is not particularly original; it’s just sourcing cheesy old rock and roll with a bad ’70s production, or a “good” ’70s production of 1950s rock and roll. It’s a pretty weird one.
But it was meant to be like that; there’s a trace of genius even if it’s pretty unlistenable.
But certainly with The Man With the Cabbage Head and Histoire de Melody Nelson, there he’s on his own to be very inventive. I don’t know what happened to him that put him off [that approach]. I have this feeling that part of it was the failure of Melody Nelson; it was a complete flop as an album. That’s only my theory, but I think he thought, “Eff it, I don’t care what I do now, I’ll just be this bad drunkard in public, that will be all I do. I don’t have to be serious.” He was very dejected about the failure of that, I believe, and after that he does The Man with the Cabbage Head, where he doesn’t sing; it’s just this album about being angry at this woman who’s been sexually wild and unfaithful to him. Then he does Rock Around the Bunker and two reggae albums where he doesn’t bother writing the music either. It’s like he was just pissed off at the whole system. He thought, “It doesn’t matter if I make something really high quality, I’ve got no control over whether it’s successful or appreciated.”
“There’s a trace of genius [to Gainsbourg’s music] even if it’s pretty unlistenable.”
And that is a real dilemma quite often for artists in general. The things that are successful surprise you, and the things you thought were the best things you did, everyone ignores them. That’s a hard thing to process. You just have to keep doing your own thing, regardless of everything around you, and keep focused on what you’re trying to do. Except when you’re doing Gainsbourg, then you can be really relaxed!
You get to shut some of that off and focus on these songs.
Yeah, it’s really outside of my normal themes, where I’m really committing my heart and soul into it. I can stand back from it and it’s got a different purpose for me. I really enjoy it, and some of the songs I’ve unearthed for the next volume which is coming later in the year [Intoxicated Women], a lot of it is from the early ’60s and some of it is more heartfelt and emotional than the later stuff. I suppose a lot of the time that’s what’s missing from some of these songs—there’s a lack of emotional connection for my taste—but a lot of the earlier work, it’s quite heartfelt, and it was nice to get into the material that he wrote for women. It was great fun doing it. I pretty much decided that after twenty years I couldn’t do just one volume, I’d really have to do a proper re-immersion and do it properly, to shock everyone. So I did. FL