Nick Cave : the thirtysomething years

Puncture Magazine Number 24, March, 1995

by Matthew Hall
Transcribed by Bianca

Followers of The Birthday Party at their peak hardly expected Nick Cave to survive so long - let alone to wear so well. Today, at thirty-four, the onetime merchant of gloom and excess is in his prime. He's married, with a kid, he's doing a little acting, he's a successful writer - Oh, and he has a new album out.

Nick Cave and I meet in a London hotel bar. It's a home from home for besuited businessmen discussing their latest acquisitions on the international money market and new ventures into eastern Europe. The peach- and apricot-coloured rooms in this joint cost around 325 pound sterling per night. That's pounds, guys, English money. Double it for dollars and buy yourself a drink.

Dressed in a red 50's-style cardigan and dapper blue strides, Nick spends the first few minutes rearranging the room to make us more comfy. He opens all the shutters and pulls up the blinds to let the sunlight stream into the darkened basement room. We drink bottled fizzy water with ice and lemon. He smokes Marlboro Lights.

The evidence suggests we've all got to arrive sometime. After a decade or so of global wandering, things are going swimmingly for Nick Cave. He's now a thirtyfoursomething kinda guy: following a "public" school education he has a wife, Vivien; a kid; a happy home; a sharp line in apparel; and a multi-pronged career safe from the global-recession blues. He doesn't like people to presume, but we do know he's cut his drug intake. What set Nick aside from guys of similar station is that he hasn't spent the past decade wheeling and dealing in real estate, grafting on the stock exchange, or developing a career in banking. No way, siree. Nick just sang a few songs. His latest collection being his seventh album, Henry's Dream. It also features the alternative supergroup known as the Bad Seeds.

"The band is," Nick announces, "Mick Harvey, who plays acoustic and rhythm guitar; Blixa Bargeld, electric guitar; Conway Savage, an Aussie, piano; Martyn Casey, another Aussie, bass; and Thomas Wydler, drums. It is a really strong version of the Bad Seeds. Everybody seems to get on well. Live, it is certainly the most powerful version of the band."

But supergroups being supergroups, things tend to get complicated. "Not only because everyone lives in different parts of the world, but everybody has another band to keep afloat at the same time," he explains. "Martyn (of the Triffids) lives in London, Mick Harvey (Crime and the City Solution) lives in Sydney, Conway (erstwhile Australian piano-plinking celebrity) lives in Melbourne, Blixa Bargeld (from Einstuerzende Neubauten) and Thomas Wydler (the only "rock" drummer who should be allowed a solo) live in Berlin. I live in Brazil."

Practising must be hell. "Hey, Blixa! Can you give us a lift to rehearsal?"

"It's not that difficult to keep them together," suggests Cave. "I just say I want to make a record at a particular point and send my manager off to organize it. For him it's a logistical nightmare. If in September we say, 'Right, we want to make an album at the start of the year, then we have to work out how long until it's released. Then we need part of the year free for touring."

It's a matter of finding a window in their respective diaries. Henry's Dream was recorded in LA, New York, and Melbourne, helped along by David Briggs, probably best known for welding together Neil Young's most recent efforts. As far as the dynamics of the band is concerned, it's something of a departure for Cave.

"I write the songs, although it changes from album to album... How much the band are allowed do contribute musically and even personality-wise. The record we made before this one, The Good Son, was a very definite type of record, and certain elements of the group had to be kept on a fairly short leash. Namely Blixa, for example. He had to tailor his guitar because the music was far more melodic. On Henry's Dream everyone was given absolute freedom to do what they wanted.

"One of the things that began to bug me about The Good Son," he adds, "was that everything was written before we went into the studio. We knew all the melody lines. It was very much constructed in the studio and it wasn't really a 'band' thing. It didn't have much feel behind it. With Henry's Dream, we were all in the studio pounding away at the song at the same time."

Strangely enough, but perhaps not, Henry's Dream contains much individual character. The new strategy works: you can distinguish individuals. Listen to the Triffids' tougher moments and you'll recognize Martyn Casey crunching away. One of the album's finest moments, When I First Came to Town, contains vocal embellishments courtesy of Conway Savage.

"The way the songs eventuate," says Nick, "I come in with the basic song written on the piano. Papa Won't Leave You Henry was basically two chords; the verses are just hitting away on a G minor, or whatever it is, endlessly. That was all the information the band had: just bang, bang, bang, on the G minor. Everyone sort of looked at each other and said, 'That's it?' and I said 'Yeah, that's it. You do whatever you want to do.'"

There've been other changes for Nick Cave besides the way the band works. After several years in Berlin, shortly before the fall the wall, Nick up and left, and re-located to erm...Sao Paolo, Brazil. While Brazil is probably a swell place, global goths wouldn't have bet their mascara on Nick Cave shifting there. The question had to be asked...

"I've always had the freedom to live where I want. I've never had responsibilities to anyone else. Being Australian, I've been cut adrift and allowed to float around the world. I'd been obsessed with going to Brazil for a long time and we managed to organize a tour there. As soon as I got there, I decided I wanted to stay. I met an incredible girl on the second day, which also helped. I was intending to go there for a week or so, but I've been there a couple of years now. I've got a wife and a nine-month old child. So I find myself living in Brazil!"

Rain forests, the Amazon, Copacabana, coffee, glamorous soccer teams, Mardi Gras. Shanty towns and death squads. And unlike Berlin, the sun shines.

"It is insane," confirms Cave. "There is no other city in the world quite like Rio. Visually, it's my favourite city I've seen, but I wouldn't live there. The difference between Rio and where I live in Sao Paolo reminds me of Sydney and Melbourne. Sydney being a beach-type community. It's much more extreme in Rio... the sun, bodies, more 'surface' type of things. Then you go to Melbourne which seems to have more of a soul to it, in a way. There's a great difference between the Cariocas, the Rio people, and the people from Sao Paolo. Sao Paolo is just huge, the third- or fourth-biggest city in the world. It's massive. You go to some high point and as far as you can see in any direction is solid skyscrapers. There is nothing to see there, it's not a tourist town, but it's just a great place - very chaotic."

But don't expect Nick to try conquering the Portuguese-speaking world with deft marketing tactics. Not for this record a Gloria Estevan-style Henry release in Portuguese. "Ha! My Portuguese is not as good as it should be," he admits and you hear disappointment in his voice. "I did take lessons, but I'm a moron at languages. But if I stay in Brazil I'll have to learn to play soccer - or I'll be the laughing stock of my street! All dads play and teach their sons how to play football in Brazil!"

And so Nick introduces the other change in his life: Luke, born halfway through 1991. The arrival of his son opened Cave's eyes, launched him on a journey of self-discovery, uncovered neglected traits within himself, and made him think about things many of us take for granted. Like the future.

"Becoming a father has made me take on the role of protector, which I've never ever had anything to do with in my life. In the past, my life was so self-obsessed and self-interested that I went where I wanted to go and fuck everybody else. I never concerned myself with the problems of any place I lived: the political and social problems. Now I'm being forced to notice things. It's horrifying to have your eyes opened to the way the world is. I have to make decisions as to where I want the kid to live - where I want to live or where I want to take my family. America, or England, or Australia - or to stay in Brazil. It's a difficult decision. We do want to live in an English-speaking country, but do I want my child to be an American? A horrifying thought. Or an English kid? Equally frightening!"

Often, when children mix with the music biz, parents speak of awakenings within during the simultaneous making of record and sproglet. For example, current UK chart-toppers Shakespear's Sister recorded their LP while both women in the band were pregnant. The subsequent album was titled Hormonally Yours. Does Nick feel any affinity with his sisters-in-rock?

"I didn't have the baby so I didn't suffer hormonal things. The fact that I was a father when I made the record... there is one song that is related to that - possibly the most violent and angry song on the record: Papa Won't Leave you Henry. It's a song of awakening to the horrors of the world."

For those who came in late... Nick Cave's first band, The Birthday Party (ne the Boys Next Door), trashed the contemporary music scene at the start of the 80's. They picked scraps of punk from the garbage, fried it, put it through the blender, mashed it, beat it, cooked it again, and served it up with double-killer chilli. The "establishment" either missed it or recoiled in horror. Kids loved it and the group sculpted a new world order while George Bush was still refining his golf. Things for Australian kids haven't always been easy. Since the dawn of popular culture, geographical isolation and a small population have forced any Australian band wishing to interest more than family and friends to follow the example of '60s pioneers the Easybeats and get passports and plane tickets.

The schlock-rock contingent headed for the United States: Olivia Newton-John, Bee Gees, Men at Work, INXS, Midnight Oil and countless others who tragically failed to make their mark. To many Australians this was justified revenge after America gave them David Cassidy, Van Halen, the Osmonds and military bases.

For the less commercial minded, Britain beckoned (its immigration laws sympathetic to Australians, allowed them to live and work there reasonably unhindered for a few years). And, too, London declared itself the birthplace and center of punk rock and the "new wave". The fact that the "first" punk single was I'm Stranded by a Brisbane band called the Saints and that New York was swinging to a new groove a couple of years earlier didn't matter to the Brits. Throughout the late '70s and early '80s, after a few formative home years, off went Australia's pioneering young talent to spend time in exile: the Go-Betweens, Moodists, Triffids, Apartments, Scientists, Crime and the City Solution, etc. The Birthday Party were one of the first of the new breed to pack their bags.

Exercising his memory, Nick recalls, "Keith Glass [of Melbourne's Missing Link Records] said 'Do you want to go to England?' We said, 'Oh yeah. England, oh fuck Swinging England! When can we go?' Basically he bought us tickets and dumped us.

"We assumed we'd never be successful when we were living in Australia," he adds. "We'd been playing the same venues and the same audience for three years before we managed to get out. We didn't have huge hopes, when we went to England, that the English would suddenly understand us." The real England, not the place in the tourist brochures, can probably claim some sort of responsibility for turning The Birthday Party into what they became.

"I don't think anything we did in Australia except The Friend Catcher and Mr Clarinet, those two singles, were worth anything at all," he states, and means it. "It was a load of crap basically. It was only after a while that the music became of some importance, that it became great - by some miracle.

"We were enraged by England - we were so pissesd off by the place after about a year of living there. We hated the place - we hated English people. That's what the spirit of The Birthday Party was: an intense, blind, boiling, hatred for England and English people. I don't feel that way anymore, I actually like England now and I like English people. But it's been years.

"It was the right decision to go to London," he adds. "Because everything was so mediocre there when we arrived. The bands were mediocre and no one knew what to do - they were weak and limp-wristed. In that culture The Birthday Party was able to rise up and be what it was - to be absolute odds to that. If we had gone to New York that might not have happened."

So, love it or leave it, if you don't like the neighbourhood, move out. The band headed to Berlin and began what would become a legendary episode in Cave's biography - one which would mean the ultimate demise of The Birthday Party. New things to see, new words to learn, new chums to make.

"When we go to Berlin it seemed like the right place. We instantly had tons of friends, and respect. There was an incredible community of really talented, really interesting people there. It was an incredibly wonderful period of my life. It was my second youth in Berlin. I'd had that happen in Melbourne in the punk-rock days, when we were let loose from school and could rampage around and be as obnoxious as we wanted. Then we went to England and all that was squashed, all our youth had been taken from us. We had to accept basic facts like having no money, living in squats, and the rest of the shit that happens in London, not knowing anybody, not being accepted in the English youth culture, always feeling alien to it. Then going to Berlin and finding we could do anything we wanted again. We could drink all night, we had really good friends, and it was an easygoing, relaxed way of life. And an intense creative scene."

Alongside making music with his Bad Seeds, Nick Cave has also tried his hand in the film world. He helped write the screenplay for the movie Ghosts... of the Civil Dead, a disturbing account of life in a maximum-security prison under lock-down. He also scored the chilling soundtrack with Blixa Bargeld and Mick Harvey, and acted in the film. He wasn't too bad either.

"Acting is a kind of indulgence," he says. "I don't really think I'm a good actor to begin with. If a role demanded talent or were at all challenging, I couldn't do it. I can do cameos and stuff where I sit around and mumble my lines. But if I had to develop the character I couldn't. I don't feel confident in that area."

He has made a few other excursions into the film world, like Dandy. "It was an experimental film by an Australian/German director called Peter Semple who paid us large sums of money to sit in front of his camera and lay with a gun or a guitar. Me and Blixa were both involved in it. We were very poor at the time."

More recently and perhaps significantly, he appears alongside Thelma and Louise "hunk" Brad Pitt in Johnny Suede, as wasted rock star Freak Storm.

"Blush, cringe!"


"It's a light comedy. There are some genuinely funny moments in it, but I wouldn't do a film like that again."

It's a John Waters-style budget flick directed by Tom DiCillo. "Johnny" wants to be like '50s icon Ricky Nelson and we follow his traipse in search of fame, love, and understanding. Freak Storm offers Johnny advice on chicks and how to get a record deal. In one of the best scenes, Freak donates a song to Johnny: a Cavesque parody along the lines of "They call me Mamma's boy, since my daddy went to the chair two seconds after I was born."

"A lot of my character was cut out," complains Cave. "In the toilet scene for example, I've come out after taking drugs, but the whole conversation where I talk about it has gone. What I liked about it was that Freak is a rock and roll joke to begin with, but at the end of the film, particularly in the last scene, he becomes a sinister personality, destroying lives. I like that element. But overall it's a good-natured comedy."

So perhaps the new domestic reality will cause Nick to tread a little bit more carefully in the future?

"This film thing is a risky business. I just saw a film called First Power, starring Lou Diamond Phillips. I remember going to an audition in Hollywood to play the bad guy - my one Hollywood audition - and that film is so bad. Lou Diamond Phillips is such a cocksucker! He's the good guy of course! If I'd had been in that film it would have destroyed my career. I can survive Johnny Suede but I would never have survived that film!"

Something Nick does retain control over is his writing. Following the well-received first novel, And the Ass Saw the Angel, are there any more writing plans?

"I do have a novel in my head but I haven't sat down to it. I wrote the last one longhand, then typed it - I'd compose the sentence, then tap it out. Every sentence was extremely tailored; I'd write it over and over again to get it right and tap it in..."

A decade is a long time in showbiz and Nick Cave has been kicking around for longer than that. In a business where most people are out to make fast bucks, the turnover of talent is high. Some ascending stars explode after leaving the launch pad, others offer only spasmodic contributions to the book of greatness. After arriving with deserved fanfare, those still held dear often thankfully exploded before they got too chubby: Husker Du, Hendrix, Velvet Underground (well, maybe not, but you get the drift). Meanwhile, for others the difficult second, third, fourth, albums rear their heads... see Jesus and Mary Chain, the Smiths, the Sugarcubes for recent examples. Who can say that by the turn of the century Teenage Fanclub will have a back catalogue that is not only interesting but shows no visible pantyline?

"Just get better and better, you mean?" asks Cave when questioned about the maintenance of his output. "I don't think I have released a dud. No way.

"But as a songwriter, I'm so in fear of drying up," he confesses. "I spend days in panic about it when nothing's coming and I'm supposed to have written a record and it's not happening. I wake up in a sweat, I have incredible dreams about it - madman's dreams about creative impotence.

"I jut work extremely hard on it. It comes out of that panic over not having anything left to say. Each record becomes tougher to make. It's more and more difficult to squeeze these songs out. I always feel I got there by the skin of my teeth."

When it comes time to lay some tracks, many bands (so the story goes) write a swag of songs, then sift through fifty or so, deciding which dozen are suitable for inclusion on the new LP. With Cave in a crisis, this approach is out of the question.

"I think about what I want the record to be like, so the songs seem to cross over and link together. It's quite a deliberate thing. What I've done a lot, a certain visual image will repeat on one song and then again in another song and it will have more weight in a way. More depth to it. All the songs link up."

The process is all-enveloping. If you happened to be a house-mate with Nick Cave you wouldn't see life as a twenty-four-hour rock and roll party.

"I'm thinking about it all the time," he explains. "When I'm sitting in an armchair in a catatonic state, I'm actually thinking. I do become extremely preoccupied for the whole time. It drives my close friends crazy actually! All the time I'm building up the songs en masse in my mind. There is not a lot of writing that goes on. Eventually I get a verse and stick it in the computer and a week later there is a bit more to add. It's not like endlessly tapping away. It starts off with a few basic ideas, and eventually the album becomes a whole world of characters."

One thing Nick likes to do with his songs is invent characters. Henry's Dream seems ripe to be accompanied by a living picture book. In the space of an hour, as in a soap opera, we're introduced to Henry, Joe, Christina, John Finn and John's wife.

"It's an exciting way to write," explains Cave. "I invent a character I like in my mind, like John Finn - a skinny, demented guy in a shrunken suit - and place him in a situation and let the story take on life, the characters live out their escapades, whatever they get up to. It's more exciting than to sit down and say, 'Well, I feel this way and that way and this is what happened to me today.'"

Against all odds Nick Cave now has a settled personal life, a convincing set of musical cohorts, and (whether he likes it or not - or whether we like it or not) the chance to pursue a career in any medium he chooses. Previously, his reputation has gone before him, now the myths are dispelled (remember: the guy is thinking about taking up football!). Henry's Dream may announce his arrival. Heavy rotation on MTV, anyone? Perhaps not, but choosing Neil Young producer David Briggs for this record may prove to be more than an omen. Roll on the twenty-first century.

"I'd like to continue to make music and write. I have a feeling that when the music runs out, the novels will run out. All the ideas. They are all very much the same thing. When the music runs out it will mean that I don't have any ideas any more. If I'm going downhill, I'll realize it and stop."

But things just wouldn't be the same around here.


Return to the Interviews page.