Nick Cave

Australian Style, Issue 9

with Mark Demitrius
Transcribed by

The Black Crow King hasn't mellowed with age, but then he was never unbelievably black to begin with. What he is is intense.

Nick Cave was in pain. Not spiritual pain, mind you, not angst or Weltshmerz constantly attributed to him by lazy hacks. Nope, nothing grand like that; we're talking common-or-garden tangible physical pain here. Halfway through a European tour, he picked up a phone in London to inform me that "I can hardly talk: I've been to the dentist." His mouth was hurting, hardly an encouraging basis for an interview.

The good news is that he was pretty forthcoming given the circumstances. In case you've been living under a proverbial rock, I should mention that Cave has been a seminal figure in Australian music since the late 70s. First there was the intelligent power-pop of the Boys Next Door, then the visceral glory of The Birthday Party, whose importance it would be difficult to overrate. After that came various solo or collaborative projects, inspired partly by Elvis, the blues and American iconography in general. His current (and easily longest-lasting) band is The Bad Seeds, who this year released their ninth album.

And what an album it is! Let Love In is stunningly good - ten songs and every one of them a sublime amalgam of poetry and passion. The tunes lodge in your skull like bullets. The Seeds play them to perfection, and as for the lyrics... Well, here's a couplet from Red Right Hand: "You're one microscopic cog in his catastrophic plan / Designed and directed by his red right hand". And that's from a song that was basically improvised.

So, to the interview. How was the aforementioned tour going? "It's going great. The concerts have been fantastic."

But I thought you weren't crazy about gruelling tour schedules? "I love to play live. It's just the crap you have to wade through to do that one or two hours each night, that I find a bit irritating. This tour's been easier in that respect. It's had a different atmosphere to it for some reason."

I wondered whether any specific absurd/funny/incongruous incident sprang to mind, from Life On The Road. Cave demurred, saying that "Touring is constantly like that. There's a kind of insanity to the whole thing, so I can't pull one (memory) out of my hat. The most incredible things happen to you, that you end up taking in your stride because you're on tour. In a way being on tour gives you a license to behave in whatever way you like, and it seems to be acceptable to everybody else: to your manager, to the band, to the audience to a degree. You develop a world with its own kind of logic."

And the album - how would he rate that? "It's a bit early to say, I always feel pretty good about a record when I've just finished doing it. I find the faults make themselves apparent after about six months or so, and I start to make another record to delineate and rectify the problems of the previous one. But I'm pretty happy and proud of this record."

Self-correction is one thing, and critical flak is quite another. Cave doesn't care for it, understandably in view of the inane for it's frequently taken. "I've definitely had my fair share of abuse from the critics", he complained, "and I do take that quite personally. I try to put a lot of energy and sincerity into what I do, and very often that's not taken seriously. It's definitely time people reconsidered what I do, and looked past what's commonly considered the Doom and Gloom message behind my lyrics.

"At times you wonder why you bother really. You put a lot of effort into something, and it's just so misunderstood. With this new record, I'm talking to journalists that you assume have some kind of intelligence - they're working to inform the public in some way. But you get them saying things like the Let Love In record is my mellow record, because it's about love. With statements like that, which is constant with this record, I just end up throwing my hands in the air with exasperation at the whole thing."

Critical and public response is, I suppose, the end of the process. But what about the beginning of that process, the songwriting? Was it a reasonably unselfconscious matter of sitting down to write a good song, or did he set out to, say, say, capture the essence of blues? "I've done things like that in the past. These days I just let the songs come as the are really, and accept them for what they are.

"Basically what I try to do is simply externalise the way I feel about things. What comes comes."

Inevitably certain themes reoccur, however, and one of these is the macabre, albeit less relentlessly than the 'King of the Goths' hype would have you believe. Why? "I just find a beauty and excitement in writing about it. I find the language extremely exciting, and immensely enjoyable to write about, and to read."

One subject Cave has not dealt with overtly in his lyrics or politics: "I find politics basically distasteful, and I find it difficult to find any poetry or beauty in it, or any way to talk about it. I know that it can and has been done."

Nor is he particularly enamoured of looking back at past achievements: "Unfortunately I tend to look back on things with a certain amount of embarrassment. It's an irritating way to look at yourself and your world, but it's something that I can't really avoid. I constantly want to get things right, and until I do I'll cringe when I look back at the past." His attitude to the recent release of a Birthday Party boxed set consisted of "It had nothing to do with us. Everybody is repulsed and pissed off by it."

These days Cave lives in London, with his wife Vivian and his son Luke. ("He's three and he's great - he's brilliant.") He'll be touring Australia "sometime toward the end of the year". As for moving back here to live, he said that "I often have it in the back of my mind to do that, because I love Australia immensely and I think it's an incredible country. But it's too difficult for me to operate a career out of there really. I've developed a career here.

"It's the same as Brazil (where he lived, in Sao Paulo, before moving to England). I'd quite happily stay in Brazil, but it's just so difficult to work out of there."

The difficulty must be doubly acute when your career is as busy as Cave's. It's not in the Henry, but it's a long way from manana. An album of murder ballads is already half recorded, although he reasoned that there was no great hurry because "It's a fairly timeless sort of project. So far it's just an excuse for me to write some ultra-violent lyrics."

Then there are film plans. Cave will be supplying the music for Johnny (Ghosts of the Civil Dead) Hillcote's next venture, The Jungle of Love [later titled To Have, And To Hold]. The day we spoke he'd been faxed a request to do a song for a film with Christopher Walken, Dennis Hopper and Crispin Glover - "So things come in, in regard to music for films. I also get a lot of scripts for acting roles, but I'm much more hesitant to take them up. I'm quite happy to do more acting, but I feel that I can sit around and wait for a reasonable role to come - I don't feel any urgency. It's great to find a script that's a character you really want to be."

Unlike some other members of the rock fraternity, Cave doesn't simply 'veg out' when he's not working. "I read a lot. I spend most of my free time reading if I can, or catching up on reading. I'm also interested in painting - I go to galleries and shit like that occasionally.

"But basically I read. That's the area of art that interests and intrigues me the most. I truly find that I love books more than anything else. With music there's so little that I can actually tolerate listening to, and have to return to the same things over and over again, but I'm more accepting of the written word for some reason. I can indulge myself in reading a great deal and find myself constantly enjoying it. I watch a lot of films as well."

The small amount of recent music Cave has admired includes the latest Dave Graney and Urge Overkill albums, "and we just toured with the Surrealists. They are quite brilliant as well." His evaluation of rap was "I like some rap music, but I find a lot of it unbearable. It's music that's so based on words and what is said, and yet it's said so badly so often - that's what irritates me about it. But there are definitely exceptions I guess."

Cave is of course the author of the much-acclaimed novel And The Ass Saw The Angel, and the lyric/poetry collection King Ink. Was he planning any more books? "I have another one which I should be writing but I'm not. I'd rather not talk about it yet. I made that mistake with the last book: I started talking about it five years before I finished it. (Chuckles). But you'll be the first to know."

Nick Cave is not at his most comfortable theorizing or waxing philosophical. When I asked whether he subscribed to the traditional view of art as a search for truth and beauty, he replied "I guess so, yeah. Do you?" I gave him my opinion and he said that "I just want to find out how I think about things, or put down where I stand about things, and I do that best through writing than through common or normal conversation."

Keith Richards once summed up the syndrome. Someone asked him why he played guitar and he said "Because I can't talk". Now I wouldn't call either Richards or Cave inarticulate, not by a long chalk, but the point remains. Self-description's loss is rock and and roll's gain.


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