Nick Cave: The Other Man in Black

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds: Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! (Anti-, 4/8/08)

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds: “Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!”

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It feels serendipitous that my interview with Nick Cave falls on a dreary Sunday morning. The sky is littered with thunderheads, and church bells sound ominously in the distance. As I sit in a modest Chicago hotel lobby waiting for the man to appear, I am plagued with anxiety. Cave has spent his career spinning yarns about murder, false prophets, and unattainable love, and in the process, he created a timeless mystique.

He is the other man in black: a novelist, screenwriter, and songsmith who has danced around the edge of the volcano and lives for investigating the dark sides of the human character. Suddenly, he appears, with his shoulder-length, jet-black hair slicked back against his scalp. It’s not even 10:00 AM, and he’s dressed for a dinner party in hell, resplendent in a dapper, pinstripe black suit and designer shirt. Moments later, we are alone in his small hotel room, with the blinds drawn as the first of the morning rain hits the windows.

On a whirlwind tour in support of their latest opus, Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, Cave and The Bad Seeds have completed the European leg and are in Chicago for a two-night stand at the Riviera Theater. Cave seems tired and rubs his eyes with a hand weighed down with several gothic-looking rings.

“So far, the tour has just been fantastic,” Cave says quietly in his slight Australian accent. “It seems like a long time since we’ve been in the States, and people are really liking it, and we’re really enjoying it.” Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! finds Cave mining themes close to his heart and has garnered overwhelmingly positive praise. The biblical Lazarus is substituted for a street-walking junkie named Larry, surrounding himself in sin and sex while searching for salvation, and the album is one of Cave’s most accessible and upbeat outings to date. It’s also, dare I say it, quite funky.
 
Nick Cave

“You’ve got to go where you’ve got to go with songwriting,” Cave says. “I have ideas and places that I want to explore, and sometimes those ideas or albums are less popular than others. Sometimes I know that I’m doing something that people aren’t going to dig as much as stuff I’ve done in the past. The way Lazarus has been received is very different than the way [2003 album] Nocturama was received. We’ve done 13 records that have been vastly different, so you never really know what kind of response you’re going to get. But I just need to go in the direction that’s calling me. But obviously, it’s fantastic when people enjoy what you’re doing. It’s one of life’s true pleasures.”

Lazarus was shaped by the experience of Grinderman, Cave’s side project with fellow Bad Seeds Warren Ellis, Jim Sclavunos, and Martyn Casey. Its 2007 self-titled album, recorded live with few overdubs, is a lean and stripped-down machine, with no time for acoustic balladry or the congestion of the last Bad Seeds record, Abattoir Blues from 2004.

Lazarus was definitely a product of the experience of writing and touring behind the Grinderman project,” Cave says. “I knew what I wanted the songs to be like, which is more naked and raw, and lyrically you just have to bang away at something for as long as you can until new ideas come. It took about a month working every day before I got something that to me sounded fresh and not like something I had already done. It usually takes a few weeks of writing to find a line that speaks to you in a different way than the stuff you’ve done in the past. Writing is always a solitary process for me, though. I don’t know of any other way to do it.”

Beginning in the mid-’70s with provocative Australian post-punk band The Birthday Party, Cave has been staggeringly prolific. At 51 years old, he is busier than ever, having just finished his second novel, The Death of Bunny Munro, which was hand-written during leisure time on the Lazarus tour. (“What I learned from my first novel, 1989’s And the Ass Saw the Angel, was that taking massive amounts of amphetamines is no way to write a book,” Cave offers.)

He scored the film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford with Ellis, and the two have recently completed the score to the adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, starring Viggo Mortensen and Charlize Theron. “[Director] John Hillcoat asked me to do it, and I’d pretty much do anything for him,” Cave says. “He’s a very dear friend of mine, and what I like about him as a filmmaker is that he’s able to work just a bit outside the system. The film is amazing.”
 

“The songs themselves provide a certain amount of consistency in my life, and it seems important to keep writing these songs. I’m not exactly sure why, but I seem to be driven to do it. It doesn’t provide any kind of catharsis.”

“What I liked about the book was that the apocalypse seems very real, and it’s not much different than what you’d see outside the window,” he continues. “It’s not a science-fiction film in any way, but the apocalypse is very real. What John brought out in the film is what we’re giving up every day in our lives. Because the film and the landscape are so brutal, it gave us the opportunity to do something very beautiful musically, but there’s also some very nasty stuff as well.”

Hot on the heels of Lazarus, Cave has begun writing a new album as well. “It’s going to be a Grinderman record,” Cave says. “We’ve got a lot of ideas for it, but mostly they seem to change every week. Grinderman is a completely different thing. I’m engaged in a different way, in a way that seems much more free. The soundtracks and the extracurricular work all sort of inform what the new record is going to be. Grinderman influenced Lazarus, and now Lazarus is shaping what the new Grinderman will sound like.”

With Grinderman providing a new-found creative freedom, Cave has found that it has also freed him as a performer. “There are so many people in The Bad Seeds, and we wanted to get back to a more stripped-down sound,” he says.

“There is a historical kind of gravity around The Bad Seeds, a sort of weighted history, with a burden that really began to get to me. The Grinderman project blew that weight away, and Lazarus crawled out of that into something fresh for The Bad Seeds. We all felt like a weight had lifted. The way that we recorded it, and the way that I wrote it, and the way it feels to tour behind Lazarus all feels like we’ve cut a lot of those historical ties. It’s been great to see a lot of really young people come out for the shows, and these people reflect the kind of fresh approach we’re taking. These people are out here shaking it on the floor, and they’ve probably never even heard our early records. We’re just a band, and it doesn’t need to take on this kind of epic, mythic quality.”
 
Nick Cave

For a man who many assumed would die a Morrison-like early death, the heroin-hardened Cave is contemplative and reserved, and carries an air of rock-star cool. Throughout the interview, he quietly sips his tea, while the storm increases in intensity outside.

“I don’t think that I’ve come to peace with anything,” Cave says as he twists a drinking straw in his hands. “I used to be a lot more peaceful when I was taking a lot of drugs. The drugs helped keep me peaceful. When I stopped using, I got let off the leash in terms of creativity, in terms of accomplishing what I want to do. I don’t do yoga or anything like that, which seems to be what a lot of older rockers get into. I’m just trying to get songs written. The songs themselves provide a certain amount of consistency in my life, and it seems important to keep writing these songs. I’m not exactly sure why, but I seem to be driven to do it. It doesn’t provide any kind of catharsis.”

I ask if his family provides some kind of peace, and Cave replies, “I don’t know if being a father helps center me. My kids are kind of chaos personified.” When pressed for what does deliver catharsis and peace in his life, Cave furrows his brow. “There’s something wrong with you, man; you’re so fucking concerned with my peace of mind. It’s all the peace, man; it’s all the peace. I don’t even really know if I’m ever centered.”

Cave falls silent and seems to ponder this last statement. I realize that my time is up, and I pack my things to leave. As I open the door leading to the hallway, Cave calls my name. He’s holding a rubber ducky, the kind that kids use in the bath, and he throws it to me. “I guess I’m not sure I’m really looking for peace,” he says with a smile.