Most musicians who hit 50 have long seen their best years behind them. So why does Nick Cave gets better as he gets older? an archive interview from March 2008
Even though Nick Cave has been making and promoting albums for nigh on thirty years, he is still furious that anyone wants to know about his wife, his kids or what he has for breakfast. I find it all so invasive, so demeaning, says Cave in bullish mode. Of course, bemoaning personal questions has long been a weary complaint of those in the public eye. But the way Nick Cave splutters I find it all so exasperating well, you cant doubt his genuine and sincere bewilderment. A closed case, then, of another musician who’ll only talk steadfastly about scales, hi-hats and his art. Ho-hum.
But with Nick Cave, all this doesn’t really matter. Right now his Indian summer of a career, his staggeringly prolific work rate and, yes goddam it, his art are for more scintillating topics to mull over than asking whether he has mellowed with age or whether he likes Brighton Pier.
Today, Cave is in London, at Mute Records HQ in west London, chatting enthusiastically – and affably about his and the Bad Seeds 14th studio album, Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! By anybody else’s standards, clocking in album number 14 would have been greeted with a polite but indifferent shrug. After all, did anyone organise ticker tape parades for the arrival of, say, REM New Adventures in Hi-Fi album or Sonic Youths Murray Street? Isn’t there often a feeling that such ant-quite-let-go mainstay artists should be put out to graze or simply negotiate afternoon slots at the Guildford festival?
With Cave its all rather different. When he says I am enjoying what I do now more than ever, again his sincerity is striking and rings true. Last year he was having riotous fun with his dirty-garage-rock side-project, Grinderman. In 2004 he climbed a new career and commercial peak with the tour de force double album, Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus that twinned thunderous gospel-blues with mystical and hallucinatory autumnal folk. And now here comes Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! which by dint of some horizontal soul-funk diversions and balmy exotica rippling throughout, is a very singular Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds album. True, the Sister Ray riffs and swampy atmospherics is in keeping with their subterranean netherworld, but this time Cave and his Bad Seeds have aimed partly for the hips and they stand up tall in the process.
Well, we’ve always been sexy, deadpans Cave. “Basically, most of the funkier songs I wrote on a little toy organ that belongs to my 7 year old child, and it has this great little drum beat built in. I started off writing songs for this record on a piano and they were simply Bad Seeds songs that you know and love. I wanted to get away from that. We were aiming for a lightness of touch with this record.
Indeed, this is a Nick Cave album packed full of surprises. So while the title track (and recent single) sounds judderingly and quintessentially Bad Seeds, it’s boozy, chanting chorus has the faint whiff of a spit and sawdust bar out in the dusty, Australian outback. Nick Cave as Paul Hogan, Oz-ambassador? Crikey.
Well, I take that as a supreme compliment, says Cave. To me the Bad Seeds music is Australian. Recently I was inducted into the Australian Hall of Fame, which was weird in itself and the Bad Seeds weren’t because they were seen as imposters! But I’ve always believed that what we are sending out to the world is authentically Australian music.
Cave insists that, while drawing on American and European cultures, there is an expansive atmosphere in their work that is undeniably Australian. The new albums closing track, More News From Nowhere, gloriously evokes Australia’s searing horizon as luminously as The Go-Betweens Cattle and Cane and The Triffids Born Sandy Devotional did before it. Yes, that’s about right says Cave cheerfully, but it’s not as if we are Midnight Oil either!
A glance at the lyric sheet, though, and such panoramic vistas are quickly clouded over. Scattershot images of the Holocaust, grinding poverty and infectious diseases, wanton hatred and corrosive self-loathing fall from the speakers like ash from a crematorium. Charles Bukowski takes a ribald kicking at one point, while Cave has invited back his lyrical Talisman, Jesus Christ, back into the fray. At one point he snarls how come he only loves a loser?
There’s too much of a culture of confession and redemption everywhere, says Cave carefully Everything now has to have a sob story attached. I don’t buy into that at all and I find it all disgraceful. But I’ve always been fascinated by Jesus as a character and the stuff that he said.
Arguably, Cave feels more comfortable writing in the third person than opting for lyrical open heart surgery. His 1997 album, The Boatman’s Call, infamously detailed his break up with another singular singer-songwriter, P J Harvey. In fact, although The Boatmans Call has long been hailed as a masterpiece, he seems embarrassed about that album’s content and non-committal about the brooding ballads. I don’t have endless Boatman’s Call available at hand anyway, says Cave. I like writing in the third person because I can go in other places with my psyche that I cant if I’m just writing in a diary form. I’m not really interested in documenting my life through songs at all. Obviously, I have made one or two records that have done that, but I am concerned with being personally attached to songs rather than particular issues. This new record feels very personal to me, even if it reads like a grotesque travelling carnival of characters and situations.
A few years back Cave revealed that he works a 9 to 5 routine complete with suit and tie – in his office when writing for a new album. When pushed on this today, it’s clear he enjoys the decidedly non-rock n roll incongruity of embracing the Protestant work-ethnic.
I’ve always worked hard, he says, and there’s always people telling me how to do my job. To work in the way that I do is seen as demeaning to the creative process, that I’m supposed just to lie around on silk cushions and wait for the muse to find me. Most of that criticism comes from people not involved in making art. In truth, if you are involved in making art you have to sit down and do the work. To write well, I have to do that. It’s not like there’s a matter of choice. Songs for me don’t just drop out of the sky whilst I have a blonde sitting on my lap. It’s quite an excruciating process. I say all that but I’ve never enjoyed being in the Bad Seeds as much as I am now. Our new album shows that.