In the first KYD No. 22 teaser, our Interviews Editor Gerard Elson is in conversation with the one and only Nick Cave!
Each year it becomes trickier to say what Nick Cave is.
In 20,000 Days on Earth (2014), a fantasia-like exploration of Cave’s imaginative practice by British filmmakers Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, Cave doesn’t exactly clarify the matter, deadpanning in his opening narration: ‘At the end of the twentieth century, I ceased to be a human being.’ His remarkable longevity almost supports the claim. Taking Cave as an avatar for the figure of the artist – monomaniacal, vulnerable yet assured of his vision – the film offers a sort of ‘rock doc’ inversion of Borges’ story ‘Shakespeare’s Memory’ (1983), wherein a scholar is mystically bestowed the memory of his idol – which, he makes clear, elucidates only ‘the circumstances of the man. . . circumstances [which] do not constitute the uniqueness of the poet’.
For the disciple of the work, biography is a poor substitute for insight into the enigmatic workings of the mill of inspiration. We want access to the poet – the finessed, mediated self, the projected ‘I’ – and in 20,000 Days it’s that Nick Cave who we get. If the film conveys any concrete truth about Cave the man, it’s that he writes, and works, constantly – almost compulsively. ‘Mostly I write,’ he says in the film, ‘tapping and scratching away, day and night sometimes. But if I ever stop for long enough to question what I’m actually doing, the why of it… Well, I couldn’t really tell you. I don’t know.’
This dogged commitment to pushing his own envelope has resulted in a C.V. that reads like a dreamy, if somewhat precocious, child’s list of things I want to be when I grow up: score composer, novelist, screenwriter, librettist, actor, songwriter, singer, musician, rock star: this is Nick Cave.
It’s his work as a songwriter and performer that’s earned Cave his renown. In interviews he’s quick to explain how the other pursuits are means of rejuvenating the music, and it’s not difficult to believe him. From the scabrous post-punk assaults of The Birthday Party (1978-83) to the sparse, crepuscular compositions that made Push the Sky Away (2013) the highest-selling album in the career of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (1983-present), Cave’s restless and increasingly liquid voice has always found its keenest expression in his songs.
The American critic Greil Marcus has said that ‘the best songwriters are less afraid of words than poets can afford to be’. Cave has never been word shy. With his new book, The Sick Bag Song, he makes the nervous leap from rock lyricist to poet. The prose-verse hybrid might be his strangest concoction yet. One part demented travelogue, one part portrait of the artist as a not-so-young showman, and one part reflection on love, creativity and inspiration, the book had its beginnings on airplane vomit bags scrawled on by Cave during The Bad Seeds’ twenty-two city tour of North America in 2014. In the edition currently available through the website sickbagsong.com, these ‘sick bags’ are replicated throughout.
Outlandish and at times genuinely poignant, The Sick Bag Song is as difficult to categorise as Cave himself. One episode finds Cave’s fictionalised narrator-proxy rescuing a tiny dragon from the reedy shallows of Alberta’s Saskatchewan River by the dim glow of his iPhone. In another, horrific passage, The Bad Seeds glimpse the decollated cadaver of a young woman from the tour bus window, dashed across Tennessee asphalt. There’s an interlude where Bryan Ferry appears amid his cornucopian garden clad only in bathers, ‘white and handsome and very still’ and talking of writer’s block, like a cautionary spectre blown in from Dickens. And all the while, the narrator-Cave’s agitation mounts as he fails time after time to get his wife on the phone. ‘I’m the one that wed and fled’ he admits, the irony of the situation not lost on him.
On one morning in mid-May 2015, the 57-year-old, Warracknabeal-born Cave speaks to me via Skype from a Brussels hotel room. He’s midway into a twenty-date tour of the UK and Europe. ‘I’m nearly fucking sixty,’ he says, ‘and I’ve been on tour for thirty fucking years!’.
While parts of that first conversation appear in the following transcript, the bulk of this interview was conducted in fits and bursts via email as Cave toured through Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, France, Spain, and Russia.
KYD: What’s the function of a song as you see it?
NC: To me a song – at least the sort of song that I write – needs to voyage. The song should accompany the listener to some sort of realisation, collecting meaning along the way. This is a journey. Not all songs are like that. Many great songs are a presentation of a static idea: let’s fuck; let’s party; let’s fall in love; let’s break up et cetera. As a listener I prefer these sorts of songs, the simple song with a single sentiment. But I find these songs very difficult to write. They are beyond me, to be honest. They feel unnatural to the storyteller inside me. My songs are mostly narrative and are dependent on a slow accretion of import or meaning.
KYD: I’m interested in your fondness for vulgarity. It often rubs shoulders in your work with true beauty and grace, and The Sick Bag Song is no different. What do you hope to achieve with these juxtapositions?
NC: When a song starts to drift into a place that feels comfortable, vulgarity shocks the idea back someplace central. And it goes the other way. There’s a kind of push and a pull that goes on with those two dynamics that keeps the song aligned. Of course it’s also a way of electrifying the song, a form of defibrillation. I like the idea of a song being shattered or dismantled so that you have to begin again to rebuild the atmospherics.
KYD: Can you give an example of a song demolished by a vulgarism? And explain how its atmosphere is regained?
NC: ‘Mermaids’ from the 2013 album Push the Sky Away starts with a vulgarism. The challenge live is for the song to transcend this apparent flippancy and become a serious matter. Sometimes this is achieved, sometimes not. When it works – when the listener can move from the obscenity at the beginning and be transported to a place of meaning – the song is stronger because of the emotional distance travelled to get there.
KYD: How does this work with a song like ‘Mermaids’?
NC: Without jumping all over the song, ‘Mermaids’ begins with a pretty crass sentiment, which describes through a pile-up of banal rhymes – catch, match, snatch, crotch – the predicament of the narrator. The damaged narrator has been exiled from the world he yearns for, basically his youth. Somewhere in the middle he expounds on the need to believe, no matter how absurd that belief may be. The chorus ends as a call to his former, carefree self. The mermaids themselves are of course female but as they wave and slip into the sea we see that they are, in essence, inspiration or ideas. This song is really about the process of song writing and creativity.
KYD: How many songs have you written?
NC: Over two hundred recorded songs, I would say.
KYD: Are there any you’re especially partial to that no longer make it onto the set list?
NC: I wouldn’t say that any songs are excluded from a set list definitively. There are a couple of songs that never made it onto Nocturama – ‘Shoot Me Down’ and the actual song ‘Nocturama’ – which I like a lot, perhaps even more so because they were at the time relegated to the no man’s land of B-sidedness, poor little things. There’s a nice dejected tone about them, as if they already knew they would be consigned to the scrapheap.
KYD: Can you discuss your creative relationship with Warren Ellis [Cave’s bandmate and collaborator of almost 20 years] – specifically, the growing centrality of his loops to your songwriting?
NC: I’m sitting on an Aeroflot flight to Moscow with Warren and I just asked him. He says I’m a no-talent wanker who steals his shit. I say he’s a fucking gremlin riding on my coattails. All is well then.
Although many try to replicate Warren’s loops they have their own mysterious internal workings. Because they are linear and basically non-chordal, skeleton chords can be placed on top of them that allow me to explore a different form of lyric writing, free from conventional verse/chorus constraints. I’m very fortunate to have worked with different people over the years that have allowed my lyrics to take on different forms, to grow.
KYD: When stuck for a songwriting prompt, where do you turn?
NC: I tend to go to my notebooks, which are full of random thoughts, lines, rhymes and titles and find something that I can develop, something I can attach another line to. A line in itself is much like a single note, without meaning. But add another line to it and together they begin to reverberate.
Want to read the rest? Issue 22 is available online now! Subscribers can click here to read the full interview. If you’re not a subscriber yet, you can read the interview by purchasing a print or online subscription to KYD (and go in the draw to win a share in $700 worth of book vouchers!)
Nick Cave has been performing music for more than thirty years as the lead singer of The Birthday Party, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and Grinderman. He is also an acclaimed film score composer, screenwriter, novelist and occasional actor.