THE Cobden Working Men’s Club was the first of its kind in London, built in 1870 for the confluence and improvement of serious-minded proletarian males. Its Victorian façade has been preserved with a grade two listing, but the refurbished interior is now occupied by a private membership of high-profile unisex patrons from the arts and media. There is still one smoke-filled back room that seems to be an original feature. And there are three men inside who look like they’ve been coming here for a century – men who roll their own cigarettes, cultivate their facial hair, and fucking well work for a living. Nick Cave sits behind a dark oak table, flanked by two of his Bad Seeds, who have also joined his new splinter group, Grinderman.
“The artists I revere, tend to make a lot of records, and quickly, without too much talking about it,” says Cave. The others wouldn’t be here if they didn’t feel the same, and they are old-fashioned in their wish that music be allowed to speak for itself. Their self-titled debut album has a masturbating baboon on the cover. But Grinderman are not as regressive as they initially sound and appear. “The point of making this record was to surprise ourselves”, says drummer James Sclavunos, a burly American with a heavy beard in a nice beige suit. “And when we came up with that one song, Grinderman, it was such a revelation that somebody suggested we call the band that. It summed up the noise we were making.”
To Cave, “there is something vulnerable about that particular song. The vocal and music are predatory, like ‘I’m the fucking Grinderman’, but also sad and sort of impotent I think.” “It’s like some guy shuffling down an alley, mumbling to himself, ” says bass player Martyn Casey, whose hairstyle alone gives him a more patently Australian appearance than his bandmates. “He used to be the Grinderman.” Casey then returns his attention to a packet of loose tobacco, where it remains throughout the conversation. Fourth band member and multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis – whose experiments with what the others call “weird sounds” have done most to make Grinderman so distinct from The Bad Seeds – does not even appear today, although his coat remains hanging on the back of a vacant chair.
“Yeah, I don’t know where Warren’s gone, ” says Cave with absolute indifference. He has asked me to call him “Nick”, but his manner tells me I will never be on first name terms with this hero of mine. Even the Devil, to whom he has sometimes been compared because of his sulphurous baritone, his way with a tune, his troubled relationship with God, and, latterly, his moustaches, is probably more ingratiating. Old Nick, after all, wants your soul. Nick Cave, not so young himself at nearly 50, is more likely to suspect that you are out to steal his. “When you ask any artist about their creativity, ” he says, “you are often imposing intellectual ideas on something that comes from a part of them where the intellect doesn’t operate.”
His own heroes are those blues players, country singers, punks and rockers who managed to remain “mysterious”, and his belief that such mystery is still possible places Cave himself among the last of their tradition. There is a gang mentality in this room which rules out much hope of a reflective interview. In a different context, Cave recently admitted a pathological need to make music. “It’s a selfish thing, ” he said. “An act of survival . . . a change in body chemistry . . . an addictive feeling that doesn’t go away.” He has a family, but there is no subject more personal to him. Even his bandmates don’t ask him what his songs are about.
“Absolutely never, ” says Cave. “Which is a blessing that I’m grateful for. The hardest thing about The Bad Seeds is playing new songs for the rest of them. You sit down at the piano and say, ‘Right, this one goes like this . . . Then you finish, and you’ve spent fucking months on it, and there’s silence, and [guitarist] Mick Harvey’s eyebrow goes up.” After 13 consecutive albums, some of which he has written alone in his London office during standard business hours, he wanted “a new way of working”. “To take the weight off expectations as to what the next Bad Seeds record is going to sound like.”
Last year he took three members to the Misere studio in Paris, where they thrashed out something different in one continuous session. The resulting record is a wild group exercise in heavy sonic rainmaking, with Ellis, Sclavunos and Casey contributing old tricks they picked up in their own respective bands The Dirty Three, The Vanity Set, and The Triffids. Instead of composing the lyrics, Cave just made them up out of his notebooks, or off the top of his head. Some of them referred to his inspirations Electric Alice is a kind of lament for the late jazz instrumentalist Alice Coltrane.
One song (Man In The Moon) might be for his father, who died in a car crash in 1978. Others sound like long, nasty jokes and short verbal stories. “Nick can do something vocally, ” says Sclavunos, “that a lot of other musicians can’t . . . ” “Yeah, ” says Casey. “Sing.” “Not just sing, ” corrects Sclavunos, “but come up with words and melodies on the spot.” The most dynamic difference between this band and The Bad Seeds, as far as the others are concerned, is that Cave finally moved out from behind the piano to strap on a lead guitar, which he apparently plays like John Lee Hooker. “The guitar sort of punctuates the lyric, ” says Casey. “It’s the only way I’m able to play, ” admits Cave. I ask if the instrument effected any psychological change in him, and his blue eyes fix on me properly for the first time.
“You know, it did. Because a guitar is something you hold to yourself. A piano is something you push away.” He is less interested in the question of whether he himself is the Grinderman, or protagonist of the band’s vicious and hilarious single No Pussy Blues.
For the past two decades, Cave’s songs have tended to be first person narratives. On The Bad Seeds’ biggest-selling album Murder Ballads (1995), every one of them was a killer, and he doesn’t like being confused for his characters any more than a good actor does. But he accepts that some of him must be in them. “Well, you get on a theme. I think I’ve been on the same theme all my creative life. And I’ve only just started to feel that I’m warming to it.”
He used to be a small-town choirboy, singing hymns in Wangaratta Cathedral, Victoria. At grammar school, he met long-serving guitarist Mick Harvey, who accompanied Cave on his earliest performances of Lou Reed and Bowie covers, and later moved with him from Melbourne to Berlin, where those artists had made their best records. By that time they purposely degenerated into The Birthday Party, a frightening band of junkie nihilists whose live performances remain fabled for their violence. Cave served as lyricist and frontman – “Fingers down the throat of love!” “This really is the living end!” – until rivalries and addictions broke them up in 1984. Cave and Harvey then founded The Bad Seeds, which has grown over 20 years from a small group of like-minded musicians to a small, professional orchestra.
“There are so many people in The Bad Seeds, so many instruments vying for space, that even I get intimidated sometimes,” says Cave. “There’s still a rough and tumble kind of feel about the music, but everyone has to know when to shut up.” He has in that time relocated from London to Sao Paulo to his current family home in Brighton, where Cave will admit to dressing his twin sons Arthur and Earl up the same “just because it looks cute” (he has two other sons, to two other mothers, in Australia and Brazil). And lyrically, his songbook has filled out from expressionist yelps to confessionals, horror stories, love letters, rewritten myths, and ferocious social commentaries about capital punishment, frappachinos and advertising. He does not respond with enthusiasm to direct questions on those subjects.
When Cave talks about the difference between the original rock ‘n’ roll “shrieks from the heart” and “the later, more subtle, more literary way of writing songs that Bob Dylan introduced” both of which he continues to practise I ask if Dylan has disappointed him by appearing in commercials. “Dylan, ” sighs Cave, “has made a career out of confounding people.” Cave himself is only interested in advertising insofar as it allows him, or denies him, his own prolific work rate.
“I am resentful of an industry which dictates how many records I should make, because they need time to generate ad space between each release. I want to put out one a year, and my company can just about deal with it. But doing something different, like this Grinderman thing, seems to have confused certain people.”
Grinderman, like all Cave’s previous records, is a “reaction” to the one that went before. He followed Murder Ballads with The Boatman’s Call (1997), an album many still cherish for its tenderness and eloquence. “I don’t believe in an interventionist God, ” he sang on Into My Arms, “but I know baby that you do”. That widely beloved lyric now embarrasses Cave for its application of such high-flown rhetoric to the details of an affair (with musician PJ Harvey) that no longer means anything to him.
By deliberate contrast, the next Bad Seeds album No More Shall We Part (2001) was so meticulously orchestrated that he now finds it lifeless. “That’s still a beautiful record, ” says Sclavunos. “Is it?” asks Cave. “You’re your own harshest critic, ” says Sclavunos. At the last minute, they have removed a song called Vortex from the Grinderman album. I tell him I thought that one was a belter. “Did you?” asks Cave. “Oh fuck. We’ve been arguing about this. While you or I might accept a lyric like ‘step into the vortex’, a certain type of listener will respond, ‘You’ve got to be fucking joking.'” If this album has a theme in common with everything else Cave has ever written (including his novel, And The Ass Saw The Angel, and his recent screenplay for Australian revenge western The Proposition), it appears to be a fascination with the most extreme things that humans will do to transcend – fall in love, believe in God, commit murder, take drugs, go mad, make art.
“Yeah, well, it’s not exactly rocket science what these songs are about.” Grinderman is Cave’s own latest way out. “What we discovered making this record, ” he says, “is that when you’re packed together in a small studio, morning to night, not stopping, just playing, you go somewhere … else. You’re fuckin’ delirious. I can’t achieve that in an office with a blank sheet of paper. I’ve done other songs that way, which has to do with crafting words. But this Grinderman thing has to do with that other place.”