If Looks Could Kill...

Timeout (UK) 1996

by Garry Mulholland
Photography Mark Guthrie
Sent by Geewee

(The photograph can be found at

... Nick Cave would be one of the biggest mass murderers in history. From his incendiary, drug-fazed days with The Birthday Party to murderous meanderings with The Bad Seeds, Nick Cave has always stared straight into the art of darkness. But has fatherhood mellowed the Bible-plundering swamp poet?
Image of Nick
[ Full Panel ]

Image of Nick Mission accomplished. When I mentioned to various voyeurs of my acquaintance that I was interviewing singer, novelist and leading purveyor of darkly humorous musical stories concerning death, sex, God, hellfire, death and death Nick Cave, and that I had been invited to his flat, they all insisted I check out his bathroom. I knew what they wanted: walls covered in crucifixes; details of grisly murders on customized toilet paper; a bath painted black and decorated with various rivers to which numerous beautiful and treacherous women had been taken to die. But by the time I've entered the hallowed portals of his bijou loo, Cave has obviously nipped in, painted everything white, buried the evidence and put perfectly innocent-looking bottles of moisturiser on the wooden shelf. Then I lift up the toilet seat and... it comes off in my hand.


This is why Nick Cave hates doing interviews. Since the Australian clatter-billy of his first band, The Birthday Party, through the successive refinings of his sardonic swamp poetry with The Bad Seeds, Cave has been stuck with a rigid set of outside perceptions: he's The King Of Goth, he really hates journalists, and he's obsessed with religion and murder - except that the last bit is absolutely true.

"I have certain obsessions which I'll always have," Cave admits, sitting at the large dining table that dominates his tiny Notting Hill flat, land which are extremely powerful forces in my life. One of them being religion. But I'm also aware of an audience's tolerance to these sorts of things. I've got to stop quoting from the Bible because it's irritating."

Well, considering your much-mythologised distaste for us hacks, it certainly runs against type for you to invite me into your home. Cave raises an eyebrow.

"I don't mean to belittle the importance of this... thing, but to be honest, I couldn't be bothered going anywhere else."

Cave is doing this thing to promote two shows at the Brixton Academy: his first London performances since the February release of Murder Ballads. This towering collection of disturbing, graphic and hilarious... erm... murder ballads has become the most critically and commercially successful album of his career. But if you're going expecting Murder Ballads: The Musical, prepare to be disappointed.

Because Mr. Perversity, with more than a nod towards that 'audience tolerance', doesn't even like his latest record.

"I have a bad reaction to all my records when I've just made them, but Murder Ballads I couldn't even get the whole way through once. It's a topic I've dealt with so much I've grown to detest it. Consequently, that's paved the way for the new Bad Seeds record, which is certainly not about murder. As far as I know."

Thus a recent festival tour, taking in Europe and Japan, featured only a few songs from Murder Ballads alongside old and brand-new material. And Cave is hoping that he can provide something a bit special for the London gigs.

"Hopefully we'll get Kylie Minogue and Polly Harvey" - Murder Ballads guest stars and, if you believe the gossip, sometime victims of Cave's fatal attraction - "up to sing with us, though both of them are extremely difficult to pin down. I don't know why. They're women. I always wondered why we never work with women. Now I know. I mean that in jest, really." No, honest, he does. And anyway, he seems to have loads of women around him. His manager, his press officer...

"I prefer to be surrounded by women. I find I get on with them much better. It was quite exciting working with Polly and Kylie, having women in the band-room that actually do something. God, that sounds really bad as well..." (He trips over his explanation several times)... "i mean it's really nice having women in the band room that you are actually directly involved with and working with. Yeah. I mean, apart from everyone's girlfriends and wives and so forth... this interview's off to a roaring start."

As well as this constant wry self-consciousness about his interview technique, Cave also feels uncomfortable examining his back catalogue ("I would find it intolerable. I'm very squeamish about listening to my own words.") and recognizes that if he were more radio-friendly, it would diminish his need to talk to the adoring press. "i would love that. But then I'd have to do some shit video, and rock videos are even worse than interviews."

Presumably then, you don't crave that elusive, world-conquering Number One pop hit?

"No, I think it would damage the work. The progress of our group has been exactly the way I dreamed it to be. If there'd been the pressure of Number One records, I don't think I could have withstood that pressure and done what I wanted to do. I don't have the stamina for the limelight. I would just cave in." The pun appears to be completely unintentional.

As the conversation progresses, it becomes apparent that, almost uniquely for your average intensely press-phobic rock genius type, Cave is happier talking about anything but his music. His business interests in various west London eateries, including the Portobello Cafe ("It's a great little place to hang out. Hell - all sorts of rock stars go there"); his discomfort in social situations ("I don't mix well in that way. I've never been a great party-goer"); and his five-year-old son, Luke, who has introduced Cave to the joys of single-parenthood.

"I've had to become more responsible. I find it extremely easy to be a father and I love my son very much. I do things I would never have conceived in my wildest dreams, with my son. I'm able to surrender a lot of myself to a greater thing, which is his childhood. And I've found that I'm more able to do that with him, than I've ever been able to with anyone else. My family, the relationships I've been in - I've always been very insular. But I do this quite well. At his age, it forces everything into the present time. You're not plagued by your past or worried about your future. You're just in the moment with your kid, which has been a real lesson for me. A basic spiritual lesson on how to live your life."

Okay, that's enough grown-up, sensitive stuff. Back to crucial rock'n'roll matters. Some of my female friends think you're one of the planet's most shaggable men. Do you think you're sexy?

"I do, yeah. Extremely. When I'm alone. There have been long periods in my life when I've been as unsexy as you can get. Years and years of unparalleled unsexiness. My legs are a little thin. I've got a good torso. The lower body betrays the sexiness of my upper body, or something like that. I'm all right with my shirt off, but it's best to keep my trousers on."

And what do you think of the current state of pop? Are you a fan of dance music?

"I quite like it - I just don't listen to it. I don't dance. I mean, I can. But I choose not to."

And what about the Britpop/Dadrock consensus, as typified by those urbane Gallagher boys.

"I could be nasty about it, but I have no authority to discuss it. It doesn't interest me. It's music for young people, and I don't consider myself a young person. But I'm not going to wag my finger at them and tell them what they should be listening to. You can only look on and... sadly shake your head."

At one point, like everyone, Cave was a young person. And The Birthday Party's intensity, particularly onstage, led to some of the most incendiary and violent gigs of the post-punk era. I tell him that one show, at Camden's Electric Ballroom in the early '80s, was the only concert at which I've ever felt genuinely afraid.

"Was I just standing there with my head in my hands? No? Because by that stage, the whole thing just made me feel sick. I never felt afraid, but then, I wasn't in any state to feel afraid. Mick Harvey [founder member of both The Party and The Seeds] did. But he was sober. I don't even remember the concert.

"But that was a very Birthday Party thing to do. This intense response didn't happen when we first started. Once we had it, we didn't want it. I used to look at this sea of stunned, blank faces, and scream, "Express yourself, express yourself" Then as soon as as they started to do just that, we were screaming, "Don't express yourself, don't express yourself." I felt sick, sad and exhausted by the end."

I understand if you don't want to talk about this, but...

"This must be either God or drugs."

Drugs, I'm afraid. Was the chaos around that band one of the reasons you got into heroin?

"No. As a drug addict you have two feelings: you're either well, because you've managed to get drugs; or you're sick, because you haven't. No other emotions really come into it. I was taking them for years before that. I'm a wicked, wicked man."

Do I detect a certain weariness with people's interest in your drug past?

"The drug thing is such a dreary kind of issue. Maybe it's just the people and bands I graze shoulders with, but it seems to me that most people take drugs. I guess I took more drugs than most. I injected drugs, which is different. It just seems strange to me that certain people are singled out as these sort of... monsters, when it's so rampant. I don't have any kind of ethical feelings towards drugs. It's fine. But for me, it became impossible to do it anymore because it just made me so depressed. I ceased to be as creative, let alone have any kind of personal life, which was a complete and utter shambles. But I still have a tendency, whenever I start to feel well, to take them again. And I do sometimes. Over the last couple of years I've been able to cut that down considerably. So I'm able to sit here now and drink a cup of tea and do an interview, and not have to go to the bathroom and bang up to do it."

So you don't subscribe to the 'drug-fuelled artist' myth then?

"It is a myth, but I know that to take a lot of drugs can help you creatively. Especially early on. I didn't have the confidence that what I was writing was... any good. I would take a whole load of speed or smack and all those insecurities would vanish. But I ended up in a state of total confusion, not knowing what the fuck I thought about anything."

It's time for our host to surrender to the camera, another ordeal for this surprisingly awkward man. And time for me to complete that mission, and use the toilet. As I search for that incriminating evidence, I think about the set of contradictions Nick Cave presents: his proud fatherhood and unashamed drug use; his belief in what he does and inability to listen to it; his fear of success at odds with his enormous talent, particularly in his lyric-writing, where he seems capable of bringing the m lyric-writing, where he seems capable of bringing the most fantastic scenarios to rich and detailed life. One can only hope that he's as good with plumbers. The toilet doesn't flush.


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