Monday, June 8, 2009

His Dark Materials: an interview with Nick Cave

Back in 2008 a lucky turn of events (a music writer got sick and his editor had no other options) led to me interviewing Nick Cave for GQ Australia. Cave was in Sydney to promote his new Bad Seeds album Dig Lazurus Dig, and EMI gave me a twenty minute slot alone with the singer in his hotel room. I had never interviewed anyone famous before (I still don't think my editor realises this) and I was terrified of screwing it up. We got off to a shaky start (I cringe to think that I told Nick Cave to his face that his music was 'formulaic') but the twenty minutes stretched to thirty, and then - after Cave bawled out his PR for interrupting us - to an hour. Nick Cave, if you are reading this, thank you for being so nice to me. Here is the article as it appeared in GQ:

Ever since 1981, when a 24-year-old Nick Cave scrawled HELL across his scrawny chest and scared the bejesus out the British music scene as the bilious, heroin-addled frontman of proto-punk nasties The Birthday Party – thus completing his transformation from cassock-kissing Melbourne choirboy to England’s number-one parent-worrier – critics have had him pegged as the right hand man of Mephistopheles, if not the Ol’ Bastard himself.

So I’m slightly disappointed when, on my way to interview the now fifty-year-old Cave at a Sydney hotel, the lift doesn’t plummet straight to Hades and deposit me at his cloven feet. Instead it takes me to a plush executive suite whose only concession to the diabolic is a relentlessly beige colour scheme and a minion from EMI, Cave’s record label, lurking in the hallway outside.

Minion assures me that His Royal Hellness is in jolly mood. His inaugural tour with Grinderman – the sleaze-rock splinter group he formed last year with fellow Bad Seeds Warren Ellis, Martyn Casey and Jim Sclavunos – has been a success, and the Seeds themselves have a new album, Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!, in the can. 2007, Cave’s fiftieth year, also saw him write an acclaimed film score for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, enter the ARIAs Hall Of Fame (hijacking the ceremony to huffily induct his band mates in the process) and inspire a major retrospective exhibition at Melbourne’s Arts Centre. All in all not a bad year for a man who once stomped around his native city wearing a T-shirt saying I Hate Every Cop In This Town (allegedly he was once arrested for masturbating at a police officer’s wife from the back of a moving tour van too, but that’s another story).

Today Cave is looking just the shady side of respectable in a skinny black suit, louchely unbuttoned shirt, slicked back hair and gunslinger moustache. Perched on a sofa too small for his famously elongated frame, he keeps fiddling nervously with a lamp stand, pushing it to tipping point then catching it just before it crashes to the floor.

“You know what I hate most about being interviewed?”

As icebreakers go, it’s hard to beat.

“What I hate most about being interviewed is that right now I’m thinking, man, I’ve made a fucking great record. In Melbourne I have this hire car, a great big fucking black Statesman with this incredible sound system. I whack on Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!, crank it up really loud and drive around without any particular destination, just listening. And I think, fuck man, this is special. I’ve made a stone cold classic.”

He pauses to harass the lamp some more. Twenty-five years in the music industry has evidently taught Cave a thing or two about how to plug a record.

“But I can guarantee,” he continues, “that once I’ve finished this spate of interviews I won’t play that fucking record ever again. Because I’ll be sick to death of it. And I’ll realise that all our efforts, all the accumulated hours of anguish that have gone into making it, have fallen on deaf ears.”

Ouch. And then what?

“And then I’ll make another one.”

This artist-makes-record, critics-misinterpret-record, artist-returns-to-studio-in-disgust cycle of creativity might not be ideal, but it has kept Cave prolific. Dig, Lazarus Dig!! is his fourteenth studio album with the Bad Seeds, a band which, in one form or another, has served him loyally on a musical odyssey that has encompassed (in no particular order or combination) apocalyptic post-punk, religious rock, folk romance, swamp blues, political ballads, anthemic torch songs and – perhaps most bizarrely of all to anyone unfamiliar with Cavian whimsy – a chart-topping duet with Kylie Minogue.

But even the most metamorphic bands have a base chromosome or two, and Cave’s love affair with the piano as a songwriting tool has always been central to the Bad Seeds’ sound. Until now, that is. In recording Lazarus, Cave did the unthinkable and left his piano lid closed, reaching instead for the organ and, despite being a novice axe man, the guitar. The upshot is that every track on Lazarus is delivered not just box-fresh, but positively wriggling.

“It’s hip and groovy and catchy,” Cave says, deadpan to the core. “It’s a sexy, groovy right-on beat.”

The flower-power adjectives might seem out of place for a Bad Seeds record, but they’re not far off the mark. Lazarus is a spacious, glitchy, loop-strewn thing, crackling with fruity organ hooks and raw, strenuous guitars. There’s an organised chaos to it, a fizzing energy, which, Cave acknowledges, is a product of what, he refers to as “the Grinderman thing.”

“Before recording Dig, Lazarus, Dig!! the four of us, the Grinderman four, did a songwriting session together. Warren [Ellis, formerly of Melbourne band Dirty Three] came up with some loops, which we isolated and used for the album. The sound is more stripped down; we’re not all playing all of the time. And there’s a sonic disarray which might have come from Grinderman.”

Listening to Lazarus it soon becomes clear that Grinderman, far from being merely a plaything for a bunch of musicians bored of their everyday jobs, is a musical laboratory whose most successful experiments filter through to the Bad Seeds. To Cave, the two bands are inseparable.

“Grinderman is not a side project,” he spells out. “We fucking shouted that from the rooftops from the start. Grinderman are not like a bunch of businessman who whack on fright wigs and strap on dildos for one crazy night out before going back to being businessmen again. They are a fundamental part of the whole thing. You’ve just got to open your mind man, and not worry about what’s Grinderman and what’s The Bad Seeds. It’s all the same people.”

While the musical symbiosis between the two bands is evident, when it comes to lyrics they are worlds apart. Cave’s vocal delivery on the new Bad Seeds album is dense and rapid-fire, often morphing into something approaching spoken-word; a technique, he says, that allows him to fit more lyrics into each song.

“The lyrics on Dig Lazarus, Dig!! are the most complex I’ve ever written,” he says. “I was working on them for a good few months solid. Usually I edit back, but a lot of this I just really liked so I kept it in. I’d write like that all the time but I don’t think it’s fair, record after record, to inflict your audience with the lyrical equivalent of Tourette’s syndrome.”

Cave’s both-barrels approach to wordsmithing on Lazarus means rich pickings for lyric nerds. The familiar Cavian themes of love, death, sex, religion and politics are present (the obligatory Biblical deluge makes an appearance too) but, Cave admits, it’s all in a more impenetrable and abstract form than his fans might be used to.

“Look, I’m not expecting you to sit there and tell me what all the songs are about,” he says. “In fact I’d rather you didn’t. But there are obvious themes. Everything is in a dream state on this record. Everyone in it seems disempowered, in a state of extreme apathy, comatose, asleep or dead.”

The menagerie of freaks and dreamers who populate Lazarus reaches its zenith with the final track, More News From Nowhere, in which the listener is introduced, one by one, to the characters at an imaginary party. Cave is no stranger to autobiographical songwriting (previous albums The Boatman’s Call and No More Shall We Part dealt with, respectively, his break up with singer PJ Harvey and his marriage to current wife, Susie Bick), so I take a punt and ask him if the characters in this song represent anyone special.

“Ah, yes. They’re old girlfriends, basically.”

Cave is fifty, happily married, and a dad. Doesn’t he think writing songs about ex-girlfriends is a little off at this stage in his life? He runs a thin-fingered hand over his brow and gives me the once over with eyes that look suddenly old and irritated. His voice, when he finally responds, is cut to match:

“Listen, you’ve got all this to look forward to. But by the time you hit fifty your mind is a fucking viper’s nest of repressed sexuality. This is just what goes on in my head, man.”

Apathy, past romances and repressed sexuality. These, then, are the demons that keep old punks awake at night. I wonder if Cave’s preoccupations – and their very public manifestation in song form – ever frighten those close to him. His wife, for instance?

“Maybe.” He gives the lamp a tentative swipe, then backtracks. “Look, I don’t have any reference points. I’m just going where this thing takes me. Ten years ago if you’d told me I’d make that Grinderman record I wouldn’t have believed it. The kind of things I’m singing about now...”

Things like No Pussy Blues?

“Yeah, like that. Back when I was writing songs like Into My Arms, I wouldn’t have believed it. But it’s just the way things are going. Into My Arms is a beautiful song, but it’s the sort that I have no interest in writing anymore. I mean, I can write them. Sometimes I even start writing them, but then I get into it and I think, I’ve heard this before, I know where this is coming from. So I don’t pursue it.”

Cave describes Lazarus as having a “non-emotional groove”, and says that in many ways the words are more devastating than “those heart-wrenching Bad Seeds epics”.

“It’s not so manipulative,” he says. “It’s not telling you how to feel. But after a while it’s like, oh fuck. It gets you.”

Cave’s refusal rest on his creative laurels has alienated as many fans as it has won him (disillusioned goths, confused Kylie fans and outraged Jesus freaks have been left spinning in his wake), and partly explains why Australia, his home nation, has taken so long to acknowledge one of their most prodigiously talented sons. At a time in his career when most artists would be content feathering their nest with crowd pleasers, Cave insists on keeping his listeners on their toes.

“I reckon I could probably get away with making another four albums like Abattoir Blues,” he muses. “Send the kids to nice schools, blah blah. But it’s much more interesting to make a record that polarises people, and see what happens.”

Among those most polarised by Cave’s music are church-going Christians, who, if their online chatter is anything to go by, don’t know whether to welcome the Baddest Seed into the fold or cast him back into the fiery pit from whence he came. Dig, Lazarus, Dig!! , in which mad prophets warn of apocalyptic rains, little girls wake up with the jaw bones of asses stuck in their jeans and lyrics such as “Mr Sandman the Inseminator opens her up like a love letter and enters her dreams” prevail, is unlikely to leave them any the wiser.

Their confusion reflects Cave’s own fractious relationship with the Bible, whose spicier Old Testament stories have pervaded his work since Birthday Party days. On the day of our interview Cave is wearing a tiny white Buddha around his neck in place of a crucifix (“I’m keeping my options open,” he shrugs) so I judge it safe to ask him on which side of the God-fearing fence he stands these days.

“I have enormous problems with the Church,” he sighs. “Enormous ones. Not with the message itself. But with the medium.”

But isn’t that the case with religion in general?

“It’s all fucked up,” he acknowledges. “It’s all fucked up and it can’t get any worse. Or maybe it can...”

He trails off, and stares gloomily at the beige carpet. He looks damned miserable, and for a surreal moment I consider giving Nick Cave a hug. Instead I ask him if the state of the world gets him down.

“Yeah,” he spits. “It makes me nauseous. I feel physically sick when I hear certain people talk about things. Usually Christians, unfortunately. So yes, it gets me down.”

So a Grinderman fan base with the Christian right is out of the question then?

“Oh, the Christian right love Grinderman,” he quips. “It’s the beards.”

About halfway through his new album, in an angry, clanging track called We Call Upon The Author To Explain, Cave holds an unspecified Authority to account for an inventory of global grievances including mass poverty, discrimination, third world debt, inequality and disease. It’s about this time that the oh, fuck feeling that Cave described starts to grip you, and it doesn’t let go until some time after the album closes. Unlike its predecessor Abattoir Blues, there is no upbeat counterweight – no chirpy song about bluebells and hopping bunnies – to offer relief. Does this mean Cave’s outlook on life is actually getting bleaker?

“I’m not a pessimist,” he insists. “There’s a lot of beauty in the world, a lot to get out of bed for. I’m not the kind to let little details like the fact the entire world is going down the fucking toilet interfere with my day. There’s very little I can do about it.”

That’s a matter of opinion. In middle age, Cave is still producing more confrontational material than many of the current generation of pop young guns whose job, traditionally, has been to change things. Perhaps his self-doubt is that of an old punk who, for the first time in his career, finds himself caught on the brink of mainstream acceptance and is not altogether comfortable with it. As I leave, his parting shot is certainly not that of artist who thinks his time has past.

“When you write your review make sure you say it’s one of the best albums you’ve ever heard,” he says. “If you don’t you’ll regret it. You’ll be like that idiot that didn’t sign the Beatles.”

© Sam Tinson, GQ Australia magazine, Feb/Mar 2008

1 comment:

  1. This article is fantastic. If you're not getting harassed already by music editors, why don't you just start your own cultural magazine? I'm sure Australia needs one.

    Thanks for getting me back onto what Nick Cave's up to - you're right - it's more interesting than what any other younger musicians I can think of are up to these days - and is influencing my own work outside of Enterré Sous X...

    Yeah, you'll write about US one day...

    Yer everlovin

    Luke Askance