The sometimes serenader, heckler, preacher, sadist.
Even when Nick Cave asks his publicist, “Are you going to kill that child?” in response to the loud cries of a baby within earshot, it is almost clear that he is joking.
“I love New York,” Nick Cave tells me over strong black coffee, sitting in a quiet corner of the lobby bar inside the Bowery Hotel. Outside it’s a beautiful, brisk March morning; inside, the musician/author/screenwriter/actor maintains a wintry presence: jet-black hair, sharp blue eyes, a fitted black suit over a well-starched gray striped dress shirt, all falling naturally on a 6’3” frame. He’s at home here among Persian rugs, dark wood panels, and a sandstone fireplace.
His comforting Anglo-Saxon accent is anchored by his childhood in Australia but clearly influenced by a continual touring schedule and a series of temporary zip codes. “I feel very much like an Australian, especially in England, I’ve never stopped feeling like an Australian,” he tells me. “But when I go to Australia it doesn’t feel like home. I’ve just been away too long.”
As we delve into his music, Cave describes Push the Sky Away, the latest record from the Bad Seeds, as “the ghost baby in the incubator,” and it is, without doubt, the band at its most sparse. The space within the songs allow Cave’s ominous, imperfect and penetrating voice to rise to the forefront and for his array of characters to run wild. The record, written over 12 months in Cave’s personal journal, was recorded in a mere three weeks in an idyllic library in the south of France, home to the nation’s largest vinyl collection. Cave alludes to a free-flowing approach to recording: “No one gets any instructions. I’m tempted to say that no one really knows what’s going on in the creation of the songs, including myself, and no one knows the outcome.”1
The expedited recording session—which at one point faced collapse—produced Cave’s best-selling album to date. “We were surprised it did so well to be honest,” he says, gushing with pride to the point of blushing. He attempts to expand but is at a genuine loss for words. I suggest perhaps success was due in part to the album cover,2 which features a nude photo of his wife (model Susie Bick) tiptoeing across a room walled in immaculate light and white shutters, and he is quick to agree. “It’s the cover! I have to pay my wife royalties.” His laughter that follows is raucous.
Cave drives his twin sons to school in his Jag and, like the everyday Brightoners—the bank tellers, mail clerks, clinical nurses—he puts on his uniform and heads into the office to earn his keep. “I’m not wearing a suit to flounce around town you know, I just start off that way in the morning. The suit to me is a thing you wear to work. Up to the moment I could afford one, I started wearing one. I always wanted to wear one—the early days I couldn’t afford it. The first thing was suits, the second thing was cabs.” He clarifies, laughing, “It’s not that I don’t don’t take the subway. I just don’t.”
It’s in this suit, in his office, that Cave gets shit done. Over the last decade since he lived in Brighton, he has written screenplays (The Proposition, Lawless) and released four Bad Seeds records, two Grinderman records, and several soundtracks (with Warren Ellis). Both the sheer volume of his output and the consistency of its artistic integrity is remarkable.3
After chewing the fat about Brighton, we pay a visit to Berlin, where Cave moved from London in 1983 after disbanding the Birthday Party. “Berlin is a city that is still that mecca for young people and creativity but in a much different way than when I was there in the ‘80s.” He is stoic in his recollection. It could be that there is not much recollection of those years: Cave’s Berlin Era came smack dab in the middle of a two-decade long heroin addiction. He settled on the west side of The Wall and teamed with original Birthday Party member Mick Harvey and German avant-garde musician Blixa Bargeld to form The Bad Seeds. He also launched his acting career in German director Wim Wenders’s Berlin opus, Wings of Desire, and spent three years in an attic writing his first novel, And the Ass Saw the Angel—a biblical tale set in backwards America, where cruelty and retribution reign.
Bad Seeds have occasionally come and gone, most famously Mick Harvey, who vacated after 2009’s claustrophobic, rock-heavy Dig Lazarus Dig!!!, and Blixa Bargeld after 2001’s melodramatic masterpiece No More Shall We Part. I’m curious if there are any diplomatic processes within the band. “Oh God no,” Cave laughs. “I think everyone has been in the Bad Seeds long enough to know that’s how it goes.” Yet, despite member changes and rotating roles, the image of the Bad Seeds—dark, ominous men in suits, long on experience and family secrets—remains static.
At 55, Cave and his imagination remains active. Not since the mid-90s brilliant The Murder Ballads (a collection of sordid tales about, well, murder) has he released a record with such vivid characters, and never such effeminate ones. Mermaids, call girls, virgins, and young brides are woven in a collection of nautical tales hovering in and around the sea.4 Not to suggest that women don’t feature prominently throughout Cave’s other work; both PJ Harvey5 and Kylie Minogue,6 for example, appear on The Murder Ballads. Minogue can also be found on his biggest hit to date, “Where the Wild Roses Grow,” a tender love song in which a couple trade saccharine memories before he takes her down by the water and kills her with a rock in his fist. Minogue resurfaces in Cave’s 2009 novel The Death of Bunny Munro, a seedy tale of father and son on the road in Southern England, selling beauty products to an array of disaffected, lonely women. In the song, Bunny masturbates to the sound of Kylie Minogue’s hit “Spinning Around” as he thinks of her hot pants, and ultimately ends up with a full sock and a “big happy smile on his face.”7
The tensions of his worlds are palpable: Tender ballads sit alongside devil-laced torch songs, love mingles with Wikipedia, harmonious family life marries the bounty of mythical, flawed personas.8 The sound has evolved—goth-punk, noir jazz, break-up balladry, garage rock, and now minimalist grandeur—but the themes permeating Cave’s stories remain the same: Faith, God, Love, Lust, and, of course, Death.
Finally, we take leave to the Holy Land—olive trees, the Dead Sea, Moses. Cave recalls, “We (Nick and friend, Mick Geyer) went on a holiday in Israel and we hadn’t released The Boatman’s Call—I just had it on a cassette. And we would drive with this on and pick up hitchhikers—we were quite well known in Israel—on their way to a Kibbutz or something like that. And we’d sit them in the car—they would be pretty freaked out—and we would say ‘right’ and play them this record. And then we’d stop the car and ask them what they thought. It was the funniest thing. Then we would kick them out.”9
The next night after our meeting, Cave and his band of well-dressed gentlemen10 walk on stage at the Beacon Theater on the city’s Upper West Side. A children’s choir, the Harlem Voices, joins the band to lend angelic voices to Cave’s brooding baritone. His hair is coiffed, and as expected, he is in a black suit, a far more glistening one than yesterday’s choice.
With each song, his energy builds, his pacing around the stage heightens, then his jacket comes off. The children have been removed, and he is getting there. He is transforming. His intent is carried out. Serenader, heckler, preacher, sadist. Behind a quivering bass line, Cave begins to tell the story of Stagger Lee, an adult western tale of murder and sodomy. At last, he is angry. Pacing the stage like a possessed snake charmer, he finally settles above the crowd, hips gyrating, finger pointing, “I’m that bad motherfucker called Stagger Lee.” The audience—the young and the old, the battered and the refined, the experienced and the novice—are spellbound. Cave, sober now, still longs for a taste of danger, moments of hostility. This is where he is living comfortably, the place he can call home.
1 It is clear that he is the boss. Which probably explains why Harvey, after 30 years in partnership, wanted to strike out on his own. In addition to the occasional replacement of members, Cave insists that people’s roles and contributions must shift for each record to ensure the Bad Seeds sound evolves. Cave explains, “One of the ways we can do something different with this record is that Tommy [drummer Thomas Wydler], who is an incredible drummer, plays drums on this record. This instantly changed the sound of this record. Instantly.”
2 The photograph, taken by French photographer Dominique Issermann, was shot in the couple’s bedroom in the sleepy seaside town of Brighton, where they live with their twin sons. “I do pay her fucking royalties, what I am talking about,” he reiterates, in a moment of greater matrimonial and artistic reflection.
3 Yet, despite his professional output and idyllic family home, Cave remains, at least physically, unsettled. “To be honest, that idea of home, I don’t feel. When I’m with my family, I feel like I’m in a place where I belong. But as much as I like Brighton, it’s wrong to call it home.”
4 I believe in God I believe in mermaids too I believe in 72 virgins on a chain I believe in the rapture For I’ve seen your face On the floor of the ocean At the bottom of the ray
5 Who Cave dated for two years.
6 Who Cave may or may not have dated.
7 It is surprising and perhaps slightly disappointing that Cave is so keenly aware of pop culture, with direct references to both Hannah Montana and Miley Cyrus on the new album. The latter, to her own misfortune, suffers a gruesome death as she “floats in a swimming pool in Toluca Lake.” Cave tells me, “Anytime you have a waxworks in Madame Tussauds, you know you are fucked!”
8 To borrow from Bukowski: “cranks, imbeciles, the demented, the vengeful, sadists, killers.”
9 It is peculiar that Cave decided to share The Boatman’s Call—the piano-led diary collection focused on his painful breakup with PJ Harvey and clearly his most personal record—with a bunch of random strangers in Israel. It’s also telling that even on holiday, Cave’s focus is on craft.
10 Is there a provision in the Bad Seeds contract that requires such formal uniform? “We just don’t choose people who wear shorts and flip-flops,” he says seriously.
Photographer: Eric Guillemain for 2bmanagement.com.Groomer: Catherine Furniss for celestineagency.com. Location: Sunset Marquis Hotel & Villas in West Hollywood at SunsetMarquisHotel.com.