Nick Cave: Dark Star

The Big Issue, 15 January, 1996

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This interview appeared in No.164 (Jan 15-21) of The Big Issue, a magazine sold by homeless people here in the UK. it's not particularly inspiring in style or even content, but I thought you might find it interesting. Beware the sweeping statements and rather glib morality at some points...

Nick Cave is disembowelling his lunch. With relish, he delves into the mangled crust of his steak-and-kidney pie and scoops up lumps of meat which he dabbles in a pool of blood-red tomato sauce. In the prissily-decorated restaurant of a select West-London hotel, it's unnerving to watch. Cave looks like a nightmareish hallucination: tight blue suit, dyed ebony locks and night-black shades. He's so thin he doesn't look as if he eats at all. "Have they got lenses in them?" I enquire of his glasses. "No," he says blankly.

In the flesh Nick Cave, 38, looks more serial killer than serious artist, which is appropriate. He carved a successful career from singing about the horrors that lurk in the dark side of the human psyche. His subject matter has always been sex, death and violence - saturated in biblical imagery. "I was more of an authority in the destructive forces," he admits. The forthcoming album by Cave and his band The Bad Seeds is called, simply, Murder Ballads. "I enjoy writing about violence," he says sardonically. "I love the words you can use. It seems to me that most art I find interesting or important stands on ethically very shaky ground."

Cave remains a controversial artist with surprisingly wide appeal as shown in his recent duet with more mainstream fellow Australian Kylie Minogue. Over a 15 year career, he's kept hold of a cliquey group of people who never come out in daylight, but he also manages to grace the arts pages of the broadsheets. Music is his main medium but he's also written an acclaimed Southern Gothic novel (And the Ass Saw the Angel), performed in films including Wim Wender's Wings of Desire and written theatre scripts.

Brought up comfortably in Melbourne, Cave was never socially deprived - he was a rebel because he wanted to be one. The singer, a mainline junkie by the age of 21, was a yowling, howling grotesque. "I was far more acquainted with destructive forces than constructive ones," he admits of the time.

The post-punk underground climate was black-clad decadent and nihilistic. Cave and The Birthday Party, his smacked-out band of Aussie art-school hooligans, made the other contenders look like mummy's boys. He still throws himself with white-heat conviction into his performances but nowadays he comes across more like a hellish Las Vegas cabaret entertainer than the depraved show-off of yore.

"I see myself as a writer who loves making music," he says. "I used to see myself as a painter - which is a truly noble occupation - but I failed art school."

Following Silence of the Lambs, Natural Born Killers, and now David Fincher's ultra-macabre film Seven, the multiple murderer has become a ghastly contemporary icon. Cave, whose early career contributed to the concept of stylish violence, refers to murder as "a handy little device" for telling stories, but in the wake of the real-life horrors of the Rosemary West trial, his morbid artistic pre-occupation with murder is tastelessly timed.

Horrified at the idea of being a social critic, he is intrigued by the way "serial killers have reached new heights of creativity." He makes the point with the characteristic mixture of fascination and repulsion in his voice, tempered with an element of "how sick can I get?" leg-pulling. He claims he gets "extremely upset" when his work is criticised for being politically incorrect. More seriously, he expresses "rage against a society which creates an individual who feels so anonymous that he has to do something like that to get a bit of meaning in his life." It's as if Cave in person is disgusted by the subject matter his creativity feeds upon.

The young man who perfected the art of lying prone and gobbing backwards over his quiff has grown into a man who uses disturbing intellectual perspectives and amoral artistry to provoke a reaction. Murder Ballads is "a confused account of my feelings towards this type of human being [serial killer]. But I've written murder songs throughout my career," he continues after lunch, having changed into a pair of severe horn-rims which partly hide his freezingly intense blue eyes.

He's so lugubrious, its easy to misinterpret his gallows humour. But Murder Ballads could be seen as the comedy record of '96 for anyone with a sick sense of humour. O'Malley's Bar - the "very funny, very long and very boring tale of a bar-room serial killer" - begins with Cave's self-parodic baritone lasciviously rasping: "I'm tall and I'm thin, of an enviable height, and I've been known to be quite handsome in a certain angle and a certain light." It's an accurate self-description: "Most people should know I've got a sense of humour," he says without smiling.

If Cave wasn't bleakly humourous and a rock star, which is rather a silly thing to be, he'd seem sinister. The fastidiousness of his manner, his conversational economy and a peculiarly old-fashioned courtesy are at odds with his reputation as the epitome of unfettered self-exorcism.

He acknowledges he's self-absorbed. "I've never felt comfortable writing about the world outside of criticising it for the way it is, because my own personal states were more engrossing." Nevertheless, he says he needs to "approach everything with love and passion". His two greatest interests are his four-year-old son and studying theology. "As you get older," he says, "you get hooked into your own idiosyncratic habits and eccentricities. I like that."

Nowadays, the former hell-raiser leads a solitary, almost monkish lifestyle, studying and writing in a notebook decorated with a devotional Victorian etching, stuffed with notes, lyrics and observations. His main obsession is his art and everything he's done has been with that in mind.

"If the artistic thing were taken away, I would be less of a human being," he insists. "When I write, I feel spiritually elated. I become closer to God, and raise myself above a mediocre, flat, Earthly existence." He now reads The Bible every day for personal as well as creative reasons: "Rather than a great book to get lines from, it's increasingly a source of inspiration."


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