"You know, I only write two songs," Crime & The City Solution's Simon Bonney tells me by telephone from his home in Melbourne. "I write ones about relationships, which are good, bad, indifferent, horrifying, incredibly beneficial – the whole gamut. And then I write songs about power relationships which have a kind of socio-political sheen to them, in the same way as my favourite author, Gabriel García Márquez. His work is political, but it's set in a magic realist backdrop."
"It's the same way as with Dylan," he continues. "The Dylan songs that I love the most are 'Desolation Row' and songs from that era, where there's an oblique politicism to them, but where it's still very much a piece of art. That's what 'The Last Dictator' has, that's what 'Everyman' has, that's what all my long songs have." Some of the tracks Bonney is talking about appear on 'A Brief History Of Crime – Berlin 1987 – 1991', a compilation that surveys tracks from Crime & The City Solution's extended creative residency in Germany's divided capital.
The Berlin Crime was the fourth incarnation of a band which had first existed in Sydney, then Melbourne, before the band fragmented and Bonney decamped to London, forming a new version of the band with Mick Harvey (erstwhile Birthday Party / Bad Seed multi-instrumentalist and current PJ Harvey collaborator), the late Birthday Party guitarist Rowland S. Howard, Rowland's brother Harry on bass and Swell Maps drummer Epic Soundtracks. After recording a clutch of songs in London, Bonney dissolved the London Crime and upped sticks to Berlin.
Berlin in the Eighties was a thrilling artistic community, filled with interesting collaborations between musicians and artists, a cross-pollinated scene that saw Australians like Nick Cave and Simon Bonney taking shelter from the intense lens of the London music media to develop new bands built from fellow ex-pats and the best local talent. Cave had Blixa Bargeld from Einstürzende Neubauten and Thomas Wydler from Die Haut; Bonney's new Crime featured Mick Harvey, Neubauten's Alexander Hacke, Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft's Chrislo Haas and Gerausch's Thomas Stern, who was brought along by Alex a bit later on when they discovered that Haas, who passed away in 2004, was "a bit erratic, unpredictable and unreliable." Completing the new line-up was Bronwyn Adams, Bonney's wife, who contributed violin and lyrics to the new Crime.
"Historically, Berlin was a melting pot," recalls Bonney. "West Berliners had to be encouraged financially to actually go there, because there was this historical perception that the city was not long for the world, or it just wasn't a safe and stable city to live in, given that it was surrounded by the Eastern Bloc. On top of that there was a move by younger people in West Germany to go to Berlin because it wasn't subject to the same conscription conditions that existed in the West. Then you had people just looking for somewhere comfortable to live, where accommodation was reasonably cheap and it wasn't a very restrictive environment. You could do whatever you want and people left you alone. It was a very night-life oriented place, and it seemed that there wasn't that rigid nine-to-five focus that there was in the rest of the world."
"Compared to what we could do in London, and compared to where we could live," Bonney laughs, "and the support network that existed in Berlin, it was the obvious choice for us. With all the people that I subsequently came to know and I became friends with in Berlin, we discovered a certain kind of kinship. It was also a much less rule-oriented approach to music, which was perhaps a reflection of the city itself. There were just no boundaries, there were no clear ideas of what made a song, of what constituted a song, or what constituted popular music. It was also nice to be away from the media. You could grow and develop your own sense of yourself in Berlin in a way that you just wouldn't have the privacy to do in London."
The Berlin Crime was initially put together by Bonney for a one-off concert as a fundraiser for a store; that line-up would more or less stay together for the next four years, recording three frighteningly individual albums for Mute. After a tour of the States, Bonney and Adams stayed back in LA and began embracing their own version of the Dream, simultaneously and unconsciously breaking up the Berlin Crime. "That phonecall to bring the band back together to make another record just never materialised," explains Bonney before pausing, perhaps uncomfortably. "That's not to say that I'm not held responsible for breaking up the band, because I am, and certainly that's the band's view, but that's not my view."
Bonney went on to record two solo records whilst living in America, as well as a third album that has yet to see the light of day, did some work in the film industry, then returned to Australia to resume his education. Moving to work within Australia's civil service seemed to put the idea of a fifth incarnation of Crime squarely into the 'never gonna happen' pile, but, after a twenty-one year absence, a new version of Crime is about to go on tour, followed by a new album, 'American Twilight', a record which Bonney describes as having more of a "groove" than any other Crime record.
Crime #5, dubbed by Bonney "the Detroit Crime" because of where the album was recorded, finds Bonney and Adams working with local Detroiters Troy Gregory and Matt Smith, familiar to Bonney from his last solo tour and that mothballed third solo record, and David Eugene Edwards from Wovenhand and 16 Horsepower. Alexander Hacke returns to the fold, bringing with him his visual artist partner Danielle di Picciotto. Completing the new line-up is Jim White, from Dirty Three, who Bonney describes as "an extraordinary drummer" and who also worked on his third solo record.
It's difficult not to draw a connection between the title 'American Twilight' and Detroit's huge population falls and industrial collapse. "Detroit's just a perfect environment for us," enthuses Bonney, "in just the same way as Berlin was. Detroit physically looks rather like a city that's been bombed. You've got one block of houses intact and then you've got five blocks that are in a state of being demolished. You've got these monuments to extreme capitalism, some of the most ornate buildings you've ever seen, and yet two blocks away you've got burning trash cans and a no-go zone. It's got the highest mortgage default rate of any city in America. There's no work. So there is an 'America-in-decline?' element to the album."
"The other theme on 'American Twilight'," continues Bonney, "is that there are people who inhabit this 'twilight' area within American society. The quintessential American dream is someone who has an idea that they can market and sell and make a fortune. Hunter S. Thompson said that in Las Vegas you could come in as the Manson Family and as long as you had a valid credit card, they would be quite okay with that. But then again, if you fall through the cracks there's no ground floor – you can just keep on falling. They would catch you in England; there's only so far that you can fall before some kind of social net will come in and pick you up. But not in America."
'American Twilight' will be released by Mute in early 2013.
Words by Mat Smith