Captured in full swing in Wim Wender’s Berlin masterpiece Wings of Desire (1987), Crime and the City Solution have had a profound and mysterious impact on rock music. Their six studio albums since their inception in 1977 have inspired songwriters such as Mark Lanegan, enamoured by Simon Bonney’s violent poetry set in Crime’s early drone-edged post-rock to its latter dark anthemic groove.
For countless others who saw the Crime’s performance in Wender’s film they might hold that visceral static frame as the archetypal image of what a band should be. Thin, romantic, distorted, loud, dystopian – the epitome of detached cool. Musically, they traced the silhouette of forlorn ennui without becoming mawkish, compromising their apocalyptic sonic profile, or losing a timeless cache of mystique.
Much like their sibling band Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Crime is a varied musical collaboration around a visionary singer. Over the years Crime has featured a different line-up depending on where the singer Simon Bonney was based; Sydney, Melbourne, London, Berlin, Detroit. Which has enabled Bonney to call on friends from bands such as the Bad Seeds, The Birthday Party, and Einstürzende Neubauten to create symphonic rostrums for his signature tenor without musical repetition. Personal circumstances, poor choices and bad luck might have hampered Crime’s mainstream popularity however arguably they’ve never made the same album twice and always moved distinctly and successfully forward, an artistic triumph rarely achieved
In 2023 Crime released the unexpected album the killer, marking not just a public return of the band but also a fascinating chapter in the development of Bonney as a lyricist. On the killer the focus is drawn closer, reflecting his experiences from working around the world from the mindset of people in extraordinary mortal circumstances. Ahead of their 2023 tour in support of the album Trebuchet had a wide ranging conversation with Crime singer Simon Bonney, covering his travels in search of meaning and the human stories that underpin the killer (2023).
Are you originally from Tasmania or is that one of those internet rumours?
No. I mean, like most stories, there’s some truth to it. I have a strong affinity with Tasmania. My father’s from Tasmania. I spent a lot of my childhood on a farm in Tasmania, and then I went to work there. But my father lived in Sydney. He had gone off to Oxford and done his thing which was separate from the farm.
The farm was a place of security. I don’t know what it is about Deloraine. There were two people in my immediate social circle in Victoria that both had connections to Deloraine, which is a tiny town. My uncle was at the forefront of developing different means of sowing poppy seeds. Because they’re tiny seeds and so you can’t use the regular equipment. It’s the (seed) drill, but behind the drill that carries these spikes that cover the thing. It didn’t work with poppy seeds because they were too small, so he built these wheels. I digress. It’s a lovely place. I have incredibly fond memories of when I was there. I visited not so long ago, down the southwest, right in the wilderness, where you have to fly in.
Filling in the gaps, last I heard you were (this was in the 90s) working on films in Los Angeles on movie sets in transport and construction. How did that come about?
Well, the two are separate. I wasn’t in the Teamsters. But I was a Teamster – that’s driving the trucks. Then I became a grip and then I became a dolly grip and a key grip and I did a lot of things. There’s probably not a 90s Rap musician that I haven’t done a video with.
Nothing glamorous about it at all, 6th street at night is filled with the homeless and burning trash cans. It was well paid, though really long days. So you did it because men are cheaper than the hiring of machines. So they want to do it as quickly as possible. You pay a daily rate for hiring a truck and so you keep the crews working as long as possible. We used to do 36 hour ‘days’ often and then drive the truck home.
Then you started working in development.
I did, but I didn’t do the aid projects that people normally associate with that word. I did law and justice projects. I didn’t do well digging, or any of that stuff. I got into it like most things, by pure accident.
I went back to Australia for a number of reasons, you see I left school when I was 14 and I decided that maybe I should go back to that and see where that would lead me. So I did. Then I got a job in the public service and then the federal public service. From there, I ended up becoming a contractor for Dfat (Australia’s Department for Foreign Affairs and Trade). I was contracted to Dfat through a department I was working for and then later on as an independent contractor. I worked on projects in Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Marshall Islands – Bangladesh was the last one. And in Australia in the Northern Territory outback with the remote indigenous communities.
I read something about you and Afghanistan. What’s your connection there? A PhD application?
Yes. It was about American decision making in the 70s/80s. Not the most recent conflict but the one before that, with the Mujahideen, the American decision making during that period and the repercussions of that.
And this inspired the latest record (the killer, 2023) as opposed to your previous records or is it a continuation of the same process?
It definitely is, in some ways, different but in many ways, but perhaps it’s a natural continuation. I would say that my very early stuff, which is unrecorded, was experiential and based upon listening to other people’s music. It was coming from being a huge fan of Television, Velvet Underground, Doors, and that stuff. Then the period with Roland (S. Howard) which I don’t look back on with any fondness. This has nothing to do with him. I wish to stress that it has all to do with me. I was a non-functioning alcoholic and my life was extremely dysfunctional. I had not insignificant mental health issues at that time. I don’t think I really discovered my voice until the Berlin version of Crime (and the City Solution). And for those reasons that I’m not totally enamoured of that period. I think that Roland really wanted to do These Immortal Souls and that’s where his heart took him – Crime was an accident on the way.
People have a very high regard for that early period of Crime, of course.
God bless them for it. I don’t want to take away anyone else’s experience. It’s a personal thing. You could make a great record but if the experience of making it and the circumstances under which you made it were particularly difficult periods in your life it means something different to you.
Well, one of your stronger releases was The Adversary live album which comes from that period.
I couldn’t agree with you more. Crime was always a live band and there the band was very much alive. The Bride Ship (1989) was of the three Berlin records that were recorded that were the most difficult. It is a sophomore record. I don’t know the accepted wisdom on the sophomore (record) but I always found them difficult. Because you get together and you have all this excitement when you create the first record. Then you go out on tour and you have to do a different one so there is a degree of pressure. Plus it was done over a long period of time – little bits here and there. To me, that record is in two parts. There’s before The Bride Ship and after The Bride Ship, and ‘The Bride Ship’ was the song which while it became the title song, it’s also the song that leads to Paradise Discotheque (1990). It was a transitional record that discovered where we could go and what we could do with what we had. Also Chrislo (Chrislo Haas – Keyboards, D.A.F.) was a bit absent on that record. Chrislo made quiet contributions but he made very important contributions to the whole process. If you’ve never met him, and you can’t meet him now, he was a very singular character. There was something about him, and not wanting to get too esoteric, all the Germans were on the whole, particularly Alex (Alexander Hacke – guitar, Einstürzende Neubauten) and Chrislo were huge rule breakers. You see, I didn’t have a clear concept of what a song was – for technical reasons. I’m not a musician. I can strum a guitar but that’s about it. I don’t know any music theory and also I grew up with long narrative songs. I love ‘Sister Ray’ and songs that tell a story. But something about Chrislo (and Alex together) it gave you the confidence to try anything – without reference to what might be a traditional view of what a song actually was. I suppose it came from that whole Can, Faust, Neu and all of those sorts of groups. It gave me a freedom.
In the London Crime, for example, the music was presented and then I’ll put the lyrics over the top of the music. The songs generally had a verse, chorus, verse, chorus, middle eight, chorus, or whatever. But when Alex sent me the music for Paradise Disco it didn’t have any of that stuff. As far as I could tell. It gave you the freedom to go anywhere. I’d write this and that. Whatever I found interesting; I’m sitting here in a room in Vienna, looking at a statue of where the Ottoman Empire was stopped. I’m reading all of this Roman history and I thought ‘Fuck it, why don’t I write about that’ – which was a natural progression from The Bride Ship. The song ‘The Bride Ship’ came about out of loss. Which is again a long narrative song and it becomes this three part cycle. If you want to know where that comes from, look no further than Lou Reed’s ‘Street Hassle’, because that’s the first song with three parts that I heard. I loved it and then there’s an Australian song, which you might be aware of called Evie parts I, II & III from little Stevie Wright (The Easybeats).
That came out of working with (Wim) Wenders because putting ‘Six Bell Chime’ in the movie. Which I think by far is the best thing that that version of Crime ever did, watching him make the movie gave me a lot. I recognised that that’s how I think when I write songs. I think of them as aural movies that tell the story. And so later on when I did the solo stuff when people were asking ‘Why the fuck do you want to do country music?’ It’s because I was interested in ‘The American Dream’. History in Australia is influenced by American culture and I was interested in the idea that if I were going to make a movie in rural Australia what music would you use? You’d use country music.
That relationship between two cultures, yours and others, seems reflected in your latest record too?
I witnessed a big gulf between my Australian experience and the Papua New Guinea experience. Papua New Guinea is a very violent country and you really get down to the simplicity of basic needs; shelter, security and access to food. I went to the Bomana prison [controversially linked to ‘torture’ by The Guardian, 2020] And I spoke to people there, it seemed, I won’t say unjust, but there are a lot of low level public servants in there. There was a whole public servant wing devoted to low level corruption and corruption was the thing I was interested in. But for a country that punches above its weight with corruption very rarely, if ever, would you see someone at the pointy end of the corruption in prisons.
Also, I saw an election go awry in Mount Hagen. We were sitting in our office having a bit of a meeting and then the tear gas came through the windows, shotgun shells, which was day one of a riot about a failed election, which led to the whole town going into chaotic lockdown. Another time there was a place that we went to look at where someone had been burnt to death in Market Square. It wasn’t even considered to be particularly noteworthy.
My friend in Papua New Guinea said to me we didn’t have history in Australia. He thought he was better off than we were. Which is interesting considering his daughter had been robbed by masked men on a bus at gunpoint. But that too was a normal occurrence.
There was a lot of violence period. From my porch at the hotel I saw two men having a fist fight. I haven’t seen many fist fights. It’s not my thing. I would say to anybody who’s thinking of taking me in a fist fight that they should take my diminutive but extremely determined daughter over myself. These two men punched each other for ages. They were two trees punching each other. Neither of them fell to the ground. Each one was surrounded by the various supporters, it would go on for 10 minutes – of this intense crunching pounding, then they would have a little break, and then they would come back to it. It was quite extraordinary.
There’s two things that come up for anyone who’s been involved in aid which is that you want to hope you’re doing something of value, that you’re making a contribution. One of my colleagues who had been doing this for a long time in the anti-corruption sphere said to me at a Christmas party ‘I wonder if I’ve made a difference at all’. Which was a sobering comment. That’s the point of the record, in a way. Throughout my life I’ve wanted to define a purpose. Something that I can throw it all in with and believe 100%. Something that I could be an advocate for. First Amendment freedoms? Could that be the entire driving force behind my life? Is my focus defending the First Amendment or fighting corruption or identifying as a Christian or a Muslim or whatever!? One. Big. Thing. But… I never found it. And I’ve tried many times (laughs) and when you lose faith there’s a terrible sense you never found it in the first place.
Isaiah Berlin, he had this idea of the fox and the hedgehog. The hedgehog knows one big thing and the fox knows many little things. So the fox is more comfortable with uncertainty and comes to accept uncertainty, and doesn’t have to believe that in order to be okay you need to have this one guiding thing; democracy, a particular person, a particular group that you’re going to belong to. I see the opposite in the hedgehog and you see it in any uniform service. There’s this idea of ‘I’m buying into the Brotherhood, and it’s this one thing’. If you lose that faith, it is a terrible, terrible, lonely place to be. That’s what this record is about.
So let me clarify one thing. In relation to Papua New Guinea, and the violence there, the thing I really wanted to look at was how people live lives in what we would consider to be extraordinary situations. You go to Ukraine and people are living under the shadow of nightly rocket attacks and yet life goes on. Without wanting to say that people in Papua New Guinea have an easy life, I was aware that when life becomes that simple, as in, it’s just about shelter, safety, access to food, and work, life can be a lot clearer.
When I was sitting in that room and the town went up in chaos in Mount Hagan I had been dealing with something of a luxurious nature, something to worry about that was a luxury and when that happened, my focus was entirely on not being shot by the police. I would go back to Australia, and people seem to get very bent out of shape about shit that didn’t matter. Myself included. I’m not trying to romanticise life in an extraordinary circumstance, I’m saying that some of the best things that have happened in my life are when I was really up against it. I ended up in film because I was up against it. I had a record contract, I lost it. I left school when I was 14, I had two small children. My wife was in a similar situation. It becomes very fucking simple, you’ve got to pay rent. So when someone asks you ‘Do you want to go to Compton to film this rap video’, a neighbourhood that you normally otherwise might not go to, you go ‘okay, I will’. I’m scared. I’m really, really afraid. But I’m going to go because I need to eat.
That said, my own personal experience is very limited insofar as life and death situations. I’ve had guns pointed at me (and that was in LA), I’ve been around a lot of guns, and people with guns. Certainly a lot of the places I went to there were soldiers on every corner and all of that stuff. It’s more about when life gets simple. One of my realisations about myself, and it should have been much earlier: I can’t bend the world to my will. Some people can. Some people are great at doing that. I don’t have that. If I try to bend the world to my will, I’m brittle, and I’ll break. If you’re a farmer you’ve got to coexist with nature, otherwise she’s gonna fuck you up. Really fuck you up. I have this really strong recollection of this guy on the next farm, cutting his grass, ready to bail the hay, and then a storm comes. And then, three days later he’s got to set it on fire. There’s only a certain amount of prediction you can do. You can know that a tornado is coming but you don’t know which house it’s gonna hit. In Ukraine, there was this building, but now it’s a hole in the ground, and yet everything around it is intact….
I tried very hard to capture the emotion rather than the exact details on the record. I wanted to cover two things, one was that when you accept life on life’s terms, for me at least, it’s a lot more peaceful. I get along a lot better, I feel a lot happier, even if my circumstances are difficult. And then the second thing is that when you go all in on a belief, and then it fails to deliver – as it almost certainly must – you can dig yourself in deeper and deeper. You go down the rabbit hole and down into the looking glass and when you come out of that it’s a very empty place. I’ve met a lot of people who were in that situation, a lot of people who had bought into an idea and for whom there was this slight confusion when they say ‘I believed in this thing, I did this thing. And why do I feel the way I do?’ Which is a sense of loss and an emptiness.
It’s nothing to do with my experiences, but the Mai Lai massacre (1968 rape and massacre of 347 men, women and children at My Lai, Vietnam by US troops, Hersh 1972) is part of it. I heard a little bit about it as a technician working with Seymour Hersh. He uncovered the governmental cover-up as well as the details and bought it back into public consciousness. But there was another documentary about it about the people who were there [which resonated with me] it showed the archetype of the traumatised soldier. This documentary was completely without any romanticisation. It’s the guys sitting at home, shaking away, taking a shitload of psych medication. It was a completely miserable existence, that whole event of which happened when he was a young man, destined him on a particular road for the rest of his life. This is not in any way to take away the suffering of the people [he harmed] but his experience of it was when he was a young man. He was 18 years old and that is often the outcome of those kinds of experiences. It’s not romantic. It’s anything but romantic and often leads to bloody homelessness – the number of vets who are homeless or take their lives [is astounding]. Again, I don’t have anything like that but I do understand the bureaucracy and I think it’s extremely amiss that there’s very little in the way of real support for people. For example, in my environment, there was a psychologist that you could ring up if you had any issues? And no one rang them up because you didn’t want it on your record. The police are exactly the same way. No one wants to talk about it, it’s a private thing until they go home and put a gun in there mouths. I think that the romanticisation of that world contributes to that in some way. All of those things influence the record. I can’t say exactly how as I don’t really think in those terms but I know that those experiences and the people that I met and the people I talk to and my own things that I saw and heard about all contributed to the killer. Plus that I’ve always want to believe in something but I now I am quietly in my older years have accepted that that’s never fucking happening (laughs).
How did it come together?
Oh, by chance more than anything. I guess it was the PhD [that triggered it], it wasn’t a normal PhD entry where the application is 10 pages long, this was 50 pages. I was halfway through the first year. I had a supervisor. Then he got retrenched. I then had another supervisor who disappeared, I think he got fired, and then came back. And then I got a third and then it seemed to me that I wasn’t gonna get any stipend, so I’d have to support myself through it. Plus there’s a lot of people with PhDs these days. Also, I hate working indoors. I preferred working in PNG because I got to be outside. And so, for those reasons, it seemed well, is it worth all that effort? The answer was probably no. Even though the subject has to do with American decision making, it had to do with how things happen in the bureaucracy and the relationships between people within a small group and what the dynamics of that are. It was more about the process than it was about whether or not the decisions were good, bad or indifferent. Process itself has always interested me. In the end, I thought maybe I should play some music.
Being locked down in Melbourne for six months I got a strong pull to go somewhere, to go anywhere really. Bronwyn and I had decided to try the suburbs to see what that was… It wasn’t for us (laughs). I have never felt more alienated in my entire life. Australia has become more materialistic in my view. Again, people buying into this big thing; I work hard, I have nice toys, I’ve got a big house… But for all that I don’t know why the people in suburban Victoria didn’t seem very happy. They had the toys but it didn’t quite hit the spot they were expecting.
Cars used to be a means of transport. I mean, yes, there were hoons in Monaros, and the panel van was the freedom machine, all of that stuff. But now everyone’s in the suburbs, everyone’s gotta have a fucking BMW. I’m assuming that they’re on these Lend-Lease (rent to purchase) things that they have in America. In America the accepted wisdom was that you had to have a particular truck to work in the film industry, because it indicated that you’re earning enough money. Therefore you were the right kind. You have the right stuff… I don’t know. It’s crazy.
Sonically, your latest album sounds like a combination of all the previous Crime Records in a way, touches of Americana, early raucous things, was that a conscious thing?
I have to say this was actually an extremely organic record. I don’t really like that term very much, but it was. It’s important to think of the producer as one of the band. Because a lot of the sonic landscape is built up by him, and I think he did. He was able to isolate particular motifs, then drop them back into the mix and bring other ones forward. My feelings about previous Crime records is that it was this chaotic mixture of sounds, good in a way, but they were all fighting against each other. Whereas this one is much more orchestrated in an intentional way. It’s not written down and someone hasn’t notated it but it’s there. Also I wrote the bedrock of five of the seven pieces of music. So the music follows the lyrics more than on previous Crime records where the lyrics moved around a lot.
Are you taking the same group of musicians on the album on tour?
I’m hoping to, though the economics of music are quite challenging. I mean, yes, that is certainly the idea is to take maybe not all, one of the guitarists is back in Australia. So there was a changeover during the recording of the record. But, there’s six of us that would ideally like to go out and tour the record. Let’s see.
CRIME & THE CITY SOLUTION LIVE DATES
23 Nov – Haacht (BE), Can’t Live In a Living-Room
24 Nov – London (UK), The Moth Club
25 Nov – Bristol (UK), The Cube Cinema
26 Nov – Colchester (UK), Colchester Arts Centre
29 Nov – Paris (FR), La Boule Noire
30 Nov – Geneva (CH), L’Usine
1 Dec – Karlsruhe (DE), P8
2 Dec – Ebensee (AT), Kino Ebensee
3 Dec – Zagreb (HR), Mochvara
4 Dec – Milano (IT), Arci Bellezza
5 Dec – Munich (DE), Muffatwerk
6 Dec – Prague (CZ), Fuchs2
7 Dec – Budapest (HU), Instant
8 Dec – Linz (AT), Stadtwerkstatt
9 Dec – Poznań (PL), 2Progi
10 Dec – Warsaw (PL), Niebo
12 Dec – Dresden (DE), Chemiefabrik
13 Dec – Hamburg (DE), Hafenklang
14 Dec – Copenhagen (DK), BETA
15 Dec – Oslo (NO), Salt
16 Dec – Stockholm (SE), HUS7
17 Dec – Gothenburg (SE), Musikens Hus
19 Dec – Berlin (DE), Urban Spree
Tickets are on sale now – visit http://crimeandthecitysolution.org for up-to-date details
Davidson, H. (2020). Leaked photos of Papua New Guinea prison reveal ‘torture’ of 18 asylum seekers cut off from world. [online] The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jan/15/leaked-photos-of-papua-new-guinea-prison-reveal-torture-of-18-asylum-seekers-cut-off-from-world.
Hersh, S.M. (1972). The Massacre at My Lai. [online] The New Yorker. Available at: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1972/01/22/coverup.
The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance. – Aristotle