Grinderman is Nick Cave on vocals and guitar, Jim Sclavunos on drums, Martyn P. Casey on bass and Warren Ellis on pretty much anything he can get his hands on; mandocaster, viola, violin, guitar, Hohner Guitaret, maracas — he's impressive.
All four of these men are also in Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. What's the difference between the two groups? Where the Bad Seeds are a magnificent display of beauty and brilliance with exquisitely violent overtones, Grinderman is a solid beating — a sexualized, brutal, blues street fight. The group has instinct like the Stooges, and its new album, Grinderman 2, the one with a wolf on the cover, is one of the most sonically supreme and cerebrally damaging albums you are going to experience for a good while. Longtime Cave associate (Birthday Party's “Release the Bats” single) and producer extraordinaire Nick Launay has outdone himself: This one will gleefully blow up your stereo.
HENRY ROLLINS: What led to the formation of Grinderman?
NICK CAVE: The Bad Seeds had gotten too big. The sound of the Bad Seeds had gotten so big, there was no way to control it anymore, I felt. I wanted to scale back to something that was more basic and reduced. This was very difficult to do with the Bad Seeds. I would bring a song along to the Bad Seeds and everyone would jump in on it and we would get this kind of juggernaut sound, which I love, but I wanted to try and get somewhere else. Me and Warren talked about this a lot and eventually we said, “Let's just do another record with just a few of us and see what happens.” That record [Grinderman] had a great impact on the Bad Seeds, so we decided to do another one.
The sound on Grinderman 2 is wild. It is an incredibly explosive collection of songs on every level — arrangement, lyrically and especially sonically. The new album makes the first album sound almost hesitant in approach. Nick Launay's production displays his great talent of being able to realize the achievable chaos of the moment while keeping things together. If you agree with this, what is the reason for the increase in volatility?
Nick did an amazing job of it, I think. There's so much space between the sounds — he did a great job with that. He loves to do that kind of stuff. He'll do anything I say, in terms of he'll record any record I give him. He much prefers doing a Grinderman record than Nocturama [Bad Seeds, 2003] or something like that, which was the first album that we brought him in on. All through the sessions he said, “You know, you're playing like a bunch of old men.” I think Nick had a lot of influence in encouraging certain aspects of what Grinderman are about — or not so much encouraging it but able to capture it.
How did you come to work with Robert Fripp on the “Super Heathen Child” remix?
I've just always loved him, and I think that Grinderman are the kind of group that allow us to do things like that. The Bad Seeds historically haven't been. So it's just a different kind of band. Grinderman is pretty much anything goes. We'll just do what we like, and that's the end of it. There's no kind of legacy or history. And I just love Robert Fripp. We kind of hunted him down and went to the middle of England and went into a studio with him and, well, he considers himself to be a stylist, so it's not insulting to ask him to play something like he played 20 years ago — he knows how to play that style and he knows how to play what's played now. I said, “I want a kick-out guitar solo on the end of this song.” He took all his effects pedals out of the amp and just plugged straight in, and off he went. He was great, really amazing. He was a real weird guy in the studio, too. Really kind of humble and referred to himself constantly in the third person. He would say, “Well, the guitarist feels that his performance the last time was better than the one before,” and so on. He was kind of an odd character. He was very humble — his whole attitude is he is there to serve. Whatever you want. Which is kind of amazing from someone like that.
Over the years, the lineup of the Bad Seeds — by now in business for more than two decades — has had many personnel changes. Like bass great (and ex–Magazine member) Barry Adamson, Cramps and Gun Club guitarist Kid Congo and Einstürzende Neubauten's Blixa Bargeld, to name but a few. Since the days of his first musical efforts with the Boys Next Door, the Birthday Party and finally the Bad Seeds, Nick Cave has always had one constant in multi-instrumentalist, arranger, composer and all-around whiz guy Mick Harvey. Mick made his last contribution with the Bad Seeds on 2008's Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! album.
Joining the Bad Seeds in session on their 1993 album Let Love In — from the excellent Australian band the Dirty Three — was Warren Ellis. It is with Warren that Cave has found a collaborator and co-conspirator who not only matches him but also pushes him to new artistic heights. Over the years, the two have worked closely together on Bad Seeds and Grinderman, as well as myriad other projects, including the sound track for The Proposition, for which Cave wrote the screenplay, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Road and others. Some of this work can be found on the Cave/Ellis White Lunar album.
HENRY ROLLINS: Your relationship with Mick Harvey, while decades long and incredibly productive, doesn't strike me as being nearly as collaborative as what you have with Warren Ellis. Historically, you would come up with songs and Mick Harvey would work on the arrangement and what instruments could be utilized. The work you do with Warren seems like you are working together from the ground up — on such a personal level that it couldn't be achieved by anything more than two people working very closely. I imagine the two of you face-to-face in a small room when I listen to the sound-track work the two of you have done.
NICK CAVE: It is very much like that. What you said about Mick is true. I think that after a while it's about trust. Within Grinderman, too, there's a trust that goes on that you can do anything and you can go anywhere creatively. It may be a really bad idea to even think about going there, but you know that between the two of you, you can do that. That is often where the good ideas actually exist — way out there, where often it is inadvisable to go. We have that kind of relationship, and between the two of us we draw on a lot of different influences that we haven't really been able to inside the Bad Seeds, like Robert Fripp — like King Crimson. I'll mention some instrument played on Lark's Tongue in Aspic and he'll say, “Yeah, I know that!” And rather than that being a terrible thing, it becomes an interesting place to go, if you know what I mean. He has no borders. If there's something good in anything, he'll be able to see that. He has obviously had a huge impact on what I do. Musically I have worked collaboratively — I always had to, because initially I could never play anything.
I liken your creative and collaborative relationship with Warren Ellis to that of John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy, who, while great on their own, worked well off each other and brought out qualities that were unique to that combination. What is the influence of Warren Ellis on you, your work ethic and your output? You seem to be more prolific than ever.
He's been phenomenally important, and important in a different way than any other collaboration I've actually had. People say — often unkindly — that he is the new Mick Harvey or that he took over where Mick Harvey left off or he took over from Blixa. Actually, that's completely untrue. The kind of collaboration I have with Warren is very, very different from others I've worked with. We work together all the time. We jam together, which is something I never did with Mick or Blixa. Warren and I go into the studio and record stuff even if there's no particular project we're working on. So it's a kind of constant feeding on each other, really. Warren is unstoppable, and between the two of us, we bring out something in each other that just works really well.
What has the effect been — if any — of Grinderman on the Bad Seeds? Do you think it has changed the sound of that band?
It's had a huge impact. Grinderman was a kind of do-or-die thing with the Bad Seeds on some level, in that it could have gone all horribly wrong and fucked everything up. I think everyone felt liberated whether they were in Grinderman or not.
The last Bad Seeds album, Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!, sounds like it's a result of the first Grinderman album. It's more spare and exploratory than the previous Bad Seeds release, Abattoir Blues/Lyre of Orpheus.
It had a big influence — it opened things up for everybody. I think it may have been the final straw for Mick Harvey. I could never quite find out why he left. Maybe that had something to do with it, I don't know. I know that Mick loves that last [Bad Seeds] record.
The rate and quality of Cave and associates' output is that of much younger, hungrier men. Live, Grinderman takes its songs past the limits of its studio ancestors. Cave is becoming a very good live guitar player. Ellis is so committed to every second of every song, it's a wonder he gets through the set. Infinitely talented veteran Bad Seeds Sclavunos and Casey pack a pulsing and propulsive bottom end. Truly, this is not some side project — this is a damn band that came to play, and they do it with a great deal of chops and a welcome lack of restraint.
HENRY ROLLINS: In Grinderman, you're playing a lot of guitar onstage. How are you liking that?
NICK CAVE: When I first picked it up, I didn't know what to do with it. But now I love it. It helps the singing a lot. It makes me sit back with the singing a lot more, and that helps a huge amount with my vocal ability.
What will be happening for 2011 and beyond with both bands? And with anything else — screenplays, sound tracks, etc.?
I'm going to make another Bad Seeds record. I am not sure what it will be like. I have a lot of ideas for it, but I have to sit down and work it out. But it will be a different sort of record.
Seeing the Bad Seeds live is an epic evening of musical hugeness and excellence not to be missed. A Grinderman show is four men onstage, who really want to do it and really can — low to the ground and raw. Their music is gracefully pugilistic, beautifully scarred and feral. Grinderman delivers with astonishing power. There is nothing like a band that leaves it all on the bandstand.
Grinderman with Armen Ra at the Music Box, 6126 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd.; Tues., Nov. 30, 9 p.m.; sold out; all ages. Grinderman's Grinderman 2 is out now on Anti-.