Three decades into an illustrious and eventful career, Nick Cave shows no sign of losing his edge as he continues to confound perceptions about his life and music, as Mark Robertson discovers
Nick Cave is in his car. It’s a big car, but no Chelsea tractor. He’s in the driving seat, howling madly along with the bombast blaring out of the speakers. This isn’t a cruise down endless stretches of autobahn, freeways of America or through the arid outlands of his Australian homeland, though. He’s outside his home in Brighton, Essex, trundling past his house again and again as the net curtains twitch and the neighbours mutter in distaste. This scenario is no figment of an over-active imagination, this is straight from the man himself.
‘I’ve got some beautiful countryside to take in but I just kind of go round and round the block,’ he admits. ‘The neighbours would be like (adopts crazy old lady voice) “Oh, the music’s up really loud again”.’
He laughs, a thick, sonorous laugh. For the second time in ten minutes he shatters a clichéd perception about him being the dark prince of rock’n’roll.
Nick Cave has been around long enough for even those with little more than a passing admiration to have their own take on him. The retro dedicates still cling to the image of the sneering waif junkie from the 80s; deranged and feral, biting chunks out of the stage and spitting them at unsuspecting journalists. For others he’s eternally the poet. Sombre and intense, glowering and gloomy, filled with couplets of doomed romance and decrying the creaking frailty of the heart. To others he’s more a gangly tart in a snug Saville Row suit, a glint in his eye, venom on his tongue, carousing with demons and ready at a moment’s notice to stove in the delectable Kylie Minogue’s head with a rock in the name of forbidden love. To a few others (well, four young men, in fact) he’s dad, who spends his days in an office that looks out onto the white water of the Atlantic ocean, shuffling from desk to piano, scribbling, humming and mumbling before shuffling off home to do ‘dad stuff’. It is little surprise to know he is by degrees, all of these things: the hedonist, the poet, the rock star, the family man.
‘I’m represented in all sorts of different ways. But it does become frustrating to read a lot of what’s written about me. The same set of anecdotes strung together by yet another lazy writer who lacks any imagination. Not you of course (laughs). It’s frustrating that no matter what your efforts are in terms of music the press lags behind.’
The reason the press revisits so many of those old stories is they’re interesting. Cave has led a full and busy life, cramming in more in half a century than most could manage in three lifetimes.
For those who might not know the back story, here are some highlights and lowlights from said set of anecdotes: he grew up in the small Australian town of Warracknabeal, in Victoria with two brothers and a sister from stable middle class stock. He dropped out of art school in the mid-70s for music and formed Boys Next Door and The Birthday Party. His relationship with heroin began around this time and continued on and off for over a decade. His tempestous relationship with the press was crystalised in rock lore when he recorded the track ‘Scum’, about three British journos, and had an altercation with NME scribe Jack Barron when he put Cave on the spot about his long term drug use. He kicked heroin after a seven week stay at Broadway Lodge Clinic in Weston-Super-Mare, simultaneously fathered two children by two different women on two different continents. Both Boys, Luke and Jethro, were born months apart. He was godfather to Michael Hutchence and Paula Yates’ daughter Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lilly and played ‘Into My Arms’ at Hutchence’s funeral. He married model Susie Bick in 1999 and they had twin boys. After living in New York, Berlin, Melbourne, London and Sao Paolo, he finally settled in Brighton, Essex. Anything else you might need to know, Cave assured us we could ‘fuckin’ Google it!’
What this potted history fails to take into account is his movie scripts, acting, books and of course, music. Being prolific is one thing (and he is) but he’s also consistent, laying himself fresh challenges, challenges that have brought him a devoted, often fevered following.
After 30 years, Cave’s music remains surprising and vitriolic. He has maintained an emotional intensity in his songs that is considerable. He follows tender ballads with violent calls to arms and for new album Dig Lazarus Dig!!! (note that excessive punctuation, kids) he unravels another dozen tall tales that on initial tasting, lack the depth of 2005’s genius double set Lyre of Orpheus/Abattoir Blues or the ragged burn of his recent Stooges-esque side project Grinderman. Repeated listens, however, throw up a varied, blackly humorous record. The line-up for his backing band, the Bad Seeds, has been consistent for the last few records and he appears to be getting into a groove of sorts. Cave puts the album’s success down to spontaneity.
‘Each record is different and has its own identity, its own personality and the records can often force the listener to re-evaluate their relationship with the band. Some people like one particular record and then the next record that we put out there they hate. And this is the glorious thing about The Bad Seeds. Another essential part is the speed with which we do things. There’s a great deal of thought goes into the writing of the songs. With Dig Lazarus Dig!!! it took three months to write but five days to record. So I go in prepared these days.’
I point out that five days is how long it might take most people to tune up.
‘We don’t tune up. Tuning up is overrated,’ he replies.
Cave spends his days working at writing songs as many might put in a shift at any other office vocation. He sits down at his desk or in front of the piano and writes. By his own admission it all comes in handy eventually.
‘I don’t throw a lot away. I might just be playing something on the piano and think “this is nice” and then suddenly it sounds like some other song and I won’t pursue it but pretty much everything gets used in the end. When I look through my notebooks it’s kind of uncanny sometimes in that there’s a lot of random notes made going through your life but it all gets used.’
At 50 years old and with the release of his 14th studio album, you’d expect Nick Cave to be safely ensconced as part of the rock music establishment, but he remains cheerfully at odds with the music industry mainstream, appears impervious to its fads and fashions, and bobs along, disinterested in the breadth of his own influence and faintly dismissive about his own musical achievements.
On top of over a dozen excellent long players, eight or nine of which you’d happily stick in your rucksack for that desert island sojourn, he had his first screenplay, The Proposition, made by his old friend, film director John Hillcoat while he and Bad Seed Warren Ellis composed the soundtracks to that and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Oddly, he is able to enjoy his film work like he never can his music.
‘I have an understanding of the importance of things that are not actually mine. Something like The Proposition, which I was involved in but it wasn’t my film, I can really stand back from and see it for what it is. I can’t do that with my own stuff at all so I have actually no real relationship with my own records other than a kind of squeamishness that goes with them. I am hugely proud of Grinderman because it feels very much like I was one part of a bigger machine so my relationship with that record is different. I can actually play that record and go “fuck this is cool”, just in a basic way that a fan might. But I just can’t do that with my own stuff at all. I just feel too implicated.’
Cave has covered most cultural bases – music, literature, film – and he’s even had one of his heroes sing his songs (Johnny Cash covered ‘The Mercy Seat’ on his Solitary Man album in 2000) so the assumption is there’s little that could rattle him. Except perhaps coming face to face with one of his heroes.
‘It ended up in a kind of boot-staring competition,’ he says of his 1998 meeting with Bob Dylan when the two were playing at Glastonbury. ‘I’m not sure exactly why. I couldn’t quite work out what to say. Mostly because it was so overwhelming.’
Nick Cave the fan boy. Yet another cliché shattered.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds play Carling Academy, Glasgow, Sun 4 May.