Nick Cave discusses the 'impotent rage' behind his latest group Grinderman, his fetish for violence and how Kylie Minogue killed his career in Japan
Nick Cave turns 50 this year. For his longtime fans, mesmerized as much by his self- destructive habits — heroin and drink and a penchant for wild women — as by his gothic, melancholic music, it is nothing short of a miracle. He seemed doomed to die young and leave, if not a beautiful corpse, than at least a striking one, his gaunt frame and sullen stare leavened by an absurdly lovely face worthy of a Caravaggio.
"It feels OK," says Cave on reaching 50, sounding chipper and voluble on the phone from Brighton, England, his young sons tootling away at a piano in the background in the home that he shares with his wife, former model Susie Blick. "I guess you tend to feel more invisible. You don't have as much impact on the things around you."
Family life seems to agree with him and brought with it unprecedented productivity. "The Proposition," an Australian Western based on his screenplay, won a screenwriting award at last year's Venice Film Festival, and he will record a new album in June with his longtime group The Bad Seeds.
Only an occasional broad vowel betrays his Australian roots. From his early days as an art student in Melbourne in the late 1970s, Cave has been pushing at extremes. After moving to London, he fronted proto-noise punk group The Birthday Party, famous for shows that were as much melees as gigs. In his work over the last 20 years with his next group, The Bad Seeds, his songs have obsessed over death and ruined romance.
Yet the personal dramas and the dark posturing hid a serious artist. Cave was always more Lord Byron than Sid Vicious. Even The Birthday Party, celebrated as one the first noise groups, was not haphazard. Their album "Junkyard," more than 30 years old, still sounds strikingly modern.
The words to Bad Seeds songs have the gritty intenseness of blues poetry. His lyrics were published in 1989 in book form as "King Ink."
Cave never attained mainstream stardom (though he has had top 10 singles in the U.K. and Australia, including his duet with Kylie Minogue, "Where the Wild Roses Grow"), but within the confines of '80s and '90s alternative rock, he was the dark poet prince, the fantasy suitor of girls who dressed in black and read Sylvia Plath and Arthur Rimbaud.
Cave has aged gracefully. His attraction to extreme emotion — violence, murder, infatuation — has ceased to define his own persona. Though the characters in his songs still love, kill and maim with a vengeance, he has become a troubled troubadour along the lines of Tom Waits or Leonard Cohen, or even Johnny Cash.
Nick Cave in song, on screen and in print
1957: Born in Victoria, Australia
1977: Forms Boys Next Door at art school in Melbourne
1980: Band changes name to The Birthday Party; moves to London and puts out first international release, the "Prayers on Fire" LP
1983: The band moves to West Berlin and splits soon after. Cave works with guitarist Blixa Bargeld, Einsturzende Neubauten founder
1984: First Bad Seeds album "From Her to Eternity" released
1987: Appears in Wim Wenders' film "Wings of Desire"
1986: Publishes novel, "And The Ass Saw The Angel"
1996: Releases the hit song "Where the Wild Roses Grow," a duet with Kylie Minogue. Accompanying album "Murder Ballads" becomes Cave's most successful to date
2000: Johnny Cash covers Cave's signature song "The Mercy Seat" on the album "American III: Solitary Man"
2006: Forms Grinderman
"I am clearer and more focused than I was before, and less self-obsessed," Cave says. "That is very much part of a certain kind of lifestyle and that allows you to look outside of yourself a little bit and in doing that, it can be quite chastening: To actually see the way that the world is and the way that the world works.
"So I think that I am much angrier than I was 10 years ago, when I was very much in my own world. And I can also see other things. I can see a lot of beauty in the world and maybe I wasn't able to see that as well either."
He even takes his kids to the local play park. Nick Cave, the brooding Heathcliff of the indie-rock generation, amid a pack of screaming children?
"I was forced into a corner [by my kids]," he says with a laugh. "And in my defense I wrote one of the most misanthropic songs I have ever written in my life."
That song is "Go Tell the Women" from the eponymous album by his newest project Grinderman. It isn't so much a new group as a new incarnation of The Bad Seeds with three of the same members: Jim Sclavunos (drums), Martyn Casey (bass) and Warren Ellis (guitar).
Like much of Grinderman's debut album, "Go Tell the Women," at least superficially, deals with the battle of the sexes. Cave narrates a laundry list of achievements of modern men denied their rightful due of sex by whining women. "No Pussy Blues," another cut on the album, is, as its name implies, about a guy who despite his best behavior — combing his hair, fixing things around the house — just can't get any. For Cave, though, impotence is both literal and figurative.
" 'No Pussy Blues' on one level [is] a straight comic song. On another it is about a society that puts forward this idea that if you buy this, you will be happy," he says. "No matter what I do, who I vote for, what is going on in the world is beyond my control and I feel that and the record seems to me to be about that in the broadest possible way. There is an impotent rage going through it."
Though Cave's rage in Grinderman is tempered and ironic, a fascination with violence has characterized much of his output. The day of our interview is also the day of the Virginia Tech shootings, and Cave is clearly engaged with the story of the shooting and also outraged, as the parent of four young sons, by the pro-gun arguments. Yet it could be argued on albums such as "Your Funeral My Trial" and "Murder Ballads" that Cave has fetishized violence.
"Maybe," he says. "I've looked at it. There is a part of me that is extremely attracted to it, but it also disturbs me incredibly, it shocks me. And the gun law is beyond reason. It degrades your society, as do the capital punishment laws as well."
Could listeners infer from his songs that a violent death is somehow romantic? He isn't so sure.
"For the first time, Grinderman had a MySpace page and you see how your fans are actually responding to your stuff. When you are a writer, you always have a perfect audience in the back of your mind whom you assume is going to be listening to your stuff: Someone who takes the time to sit and listen to each song and carefully consider the lyrics, who has a slight literary bent so they might understand some of the references.
"But when you get on MySpace it's just like, 'F**king awesome dude!' And part of you is relieved because at least your music does operate on that level, on a basic premise that it rocks. That's good. But there is another part of you that says, well f**k, why did I spend three weeks working on that verse, when no one's even listening to it anyway.
"What I mean is that I don't really know what the f**k people take out of my music. People could look at things without a sense of irony about a lot of the stuff and maybe they are the songs that are going on in their heads when they walk into a schoolyard with a bag of automatic weapons, but I doubt it. I think they have other things [on their minds]."
While The Bad Seeds are very much Cave's vehicle, Grinderman is a return to a more traditional band structure. The group hang out together and the songs were generally written by jamming on a riff or rhythm. The music is far rougher than anything from The Bad Seeds, recalling perhaps the blues-inflected noise of The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion or a more sophisticated version of The White Stripes. The biggest difference is that Cave, who usually composes The Bad Seeds song on the piano, plays guitar.
"The piano wasn't behaving itself," he says. "I was trying to write songs on it and it just wasn't giving me anything at all. You can hear in your head what is going to happen if you put your hands in [a certain] place. With the guitar I had no f**king idea.
"So different kind of songs came up because of that. I also found I began to sing in a completely different way. You are kind of holding this thing to you so you feel very involved with the instrument and thus involved with the band. Whereas with a piano, you feel like you are kind of pushing it away."
Cave's baritone is one of the most characteristic voices in rock. His intonation is closer to a black Baptist preacher (imagine Jesse Jackson singing a Leonard Cohen song) and, of course, grizzled blues singers.
"John Lee Hooker is the singer that has had most influence on me. I guess there is a bit of Dylan in there," he says. "There is a phrasing thing that I do sometimes that reminds me of Bob Dylan which I have to immediately get out of because I don't want to sound like him. There are certain singers that you find that you naturally drift toward not only because you like them but because your voice has a certain similarity, like Leonard Cohen or Jim Morrison. Although the last thing I want to do is sound like those people, so I have to rethink a song occasionally."
While The Bad Seeds' shows have become rather elaborate affairs with background singers and Cave prowling the stage like a menacing lounge singer, Cave's switch to guitar and Grinderman's more immediately rockist attitude promise a visceral live show. Last weekend the group played at the music festival All Tomorrow's Parties (curated by Ellis' other band, The Dirty Three) in Somerset, England, but other touring is dependent upon Cave's schedule with The Bad Seeds.
As for Japan, "We used to have quite a following there," says Cave. "But I don't think they ever really forgave me for Kylie Minogue."