Nick Cave is on the phone from a recording studio in England, where he and his frequent collaborator Warren Ellis — a member of both the Bad Seeds and Cave’s new band, Grinderman — are knee-deep in work on the score for director John Hillcoat’s upcoming adaptation of The Road. He’s a little fried, so I throw him a softball to warm up: What color socks is he wearing? “Black with red tips,” he replies. “They look like they’ve been dipped in blood.”
Cave, 50, has been typically busy of late, making albums, writing screenplays, scoring films. Grinderman’s hilarous 2007 debut earned some of the best reviews of his career, which began more than 30 years ago with his deranged Australian garage-punk band, the Birthday Party. This year’s hard-rocking Bad Seeds effort, Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! — on which Cave wisely observes that the Biblical character “never asked to be raised up from the tomb” — has been similarly well received.
“Nick turning 50 sort of made him become, like, ‘Fuck it — let’s have some fun!’” says Nick Launay, who’s produced many of Cave’s records, including Lazarus and Grinderman. “It’s great to see someone as talented and prolific as him opening up to these crazy new things.” Jim Sclavunos, the drummer in both bands, adds, “Grinderman gave us new tools for treating Bad Seeds material, whether that’s instruments or attitude or whatever. It was liberating not because we broke out of the box, but because the box got a lot bigger.”
On Wednesday, September 17, the Bad Seeds will play the Hollywood Bowl on a hand-selected triple bill with Cat Power and Spiritualized, whom Cave calls “the great English band of the last 15 years.” The significance of the legendary venue isn’t lost on Cave. “My mother knows about it,” he says.
L.A. WEEKLY: Grinderman and Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! both prompted talk about a late-career resurgence for you. Do you hear any discernible differences between those records and the ones that preceded them?
NICK CAVE: What that makes me immediately wanna do is defend the other work. People make assumptions about things that are never really true — that there was a lack of energy, that they were fallow periods. The truth of the matter is that with some of those records — Nocturama and The Boatman’s Call — I set down to make a certain type of music. Some people liked it, some people didn’t. But it had nothing to do with inspiration or lack of it, just as these new records have nothing to do with inspiration or lack of it.
Perhaps the recent stuff received more attention because that kind of music is inherently more —
Not necessarily more appealing, but more accessible.
Yeah, that’s right. I mean, people like music — and why shouldn’t they? — that makes them feel good. And with the Grinderman record or shows, people go fucking bananas and have a really good time. The whole feel of the concerts is very inclusive in regard to the audience; people feel like at last they can come to a Nick Cave show and be a part of the event rather than watching some sort of spectacle. But I don’t necessarily think that makes one record better than another. There’s a lot of very insular, inward-looking music that I think is wonderful.
The contrast between those extremes has always been hugely important to you.
Obviously, you have your good years and your bad years, and there are certain things going on in your life that make it easier or less easy to create what you wanna create. But inspiration has never really factored in the creative process for me. It’s been about work, and it’s been about sitting down and rather doggedly trying to achieve a certain kind of idea.
That conception of the creative process doesn’t get a lot of play from younger musicians, who tend to trumpet the primacy of the moment.
I can see that a lot of bands rely on inspiration, from the lack of quality in their work. I don’t know any great artists that can get away with just banging the shit out when it comes to them without actually knowing what they’re doing. I’ve always been in a band, but I also came out of art school, and I wanted to be a painter. The work ethic at art school is completely different than the work ethic amongst people who get into music. People who paint, it’s an honorable thing to spend all day and all night in front of your canvas — that is the romantic vision of the painter. It’s the opposite with the musician, of course; the musician does fuck-all and occasionally bangs out a song, and that’s supposed to be the honorable way.
Has concentration become easier to sustain with age?
After a while, you just don’t do things you don’t wanna do — that’s the great freedom you get, the older you get. You learn what to do and what not to do, and what will be a waste of time and what won’t be a waste of time. If someone asks me to write a film script about something, and there may be a lot of money but I don’t feel excited by that idea, I just don’t do it.
When was the last time you took on a project your heart wasn’t in entirely?
Years and years ago — it was for a Batman movie. Someone rang me up and said, “Would you write a song for the Batman movie?” And I knew in my heart that I had absolutely no fucking interest in Batman whatsoever. There was a reasonable amount of money involved, and I wrote a song called “There Is a Light” or something like that, about the Batman logo shining in the sky. But, you know, at that time I didn’t have any fucking money, and I had habits that required funding.
Are you a different bandleader in Grinderman than you are in the Bad Seeds?
Well, I’m with Grinderman all the time. Especially Warren — he’s in the studio at the moment. And we just work together as a team all the time, on all manner of things: Grinderman, Bad Seeds, music for movies, music for theater, all sorts of shit. And we’re on tour constantly together. With the Bad Seeds, there are more members and they’re scattered all over the world, so we kind of come together to do a particular project. It’s quite a special sort of thing.
The Grinderman record reached some younger fans who might not have been tuned in to what the Bad Seeds had been doing for a while. Is attracting a new audience important to you?
Yeah, of course. We’re not writing music in order to do that, but it’s startling, the front row at one of our gigs. It’s nearly jailable.
Does that change the nature of the experience?
It just depends on what we’re doing. The thing about Grinderman is that we can do whatever we like. I mean, you feel like any band can do whatever they like — but they can and they can’t. There are reasons why the Bad Seeds’ music is the way it is, and they’re legion: There are certain members that put their imprint on the sound; there are audience expectations about what the next Bad Seeds records will sound like. What we try to do with the Bad Seeds is make records where you listen to them and you have to in a way decide whether you still like the Bad Seeds — that’s always been our intention. But there are certain things in all bands that prevent a real freedom to do exactly what you wanna do. They may be about the record company, or personnel in the band, or whatever. But it feels like with Grinderman that we can do whatever we fucking like. No one can tell us what to do in Grinderman — not the audience, not the record company. If it’s a complete failure, who gives a fuck? If it’s universally considered to be a pile of shit, we’d be quite happy with that too. Because the Bad Seeds still exist.
You’ve got a backup plan.
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds perform with Cat Power and Spiritualized at the Hollywood Bowl on Wednesday, September 17.