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Interview: Grinderman

Facial hair is abundant amongst the Grinderman ranks as Nick Cave and his three compadres take their seats for a rare interview. The mood is buoyant: the band, initially perceived as an off-the-cuff splinter project from Cave’s main concern, the Bad Seeds, have enjoyed an unforeseeably feverish reception for their debut album. With Cave abandoning his favoured piano for the electric guitar, Grinderman finds him revisiting territory not too distant from the primitive, X-cert blues of his Birthday Party days a quarter of a century ago.

The evening before the interview, the four-piece combo played their first-ever live set in front of 6,000 exultant fans at the super-cool All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in Minehead, in southwest England. The three-day weekender has been curated by Dirty Three, the Australian instrumental group, whose leader, Warren Ellis, also plays in Grinderman and the Bad Seeds. The acts — who also include Spiritualized, Cat Power, Bill Callahan, Joanna Newsom, Suicide‘s Alan Vega and Einstürzende Neubauten — convened to reside and play in Butlin’s Holiday Camp, part of a chain of low-budget hotels which sprung up around post-war England to provide cheap family holidays, complete with fairgrounds and fish-and-chip restaurants.

A little uncharitably, Cave describes ATP as “Auschwitz with good music,” before conceding that Grinderman had been afforded luxury accommodations “in the officers’quarters.” Cave, with the anxiety of his plank-spanking debut now behind him, is in jocular form. Bassist Martyn Casey and drummer Jim Sclavunos are somewhat withdrawn — the latter, perhaps not coincidentally, was spotted spinning funk discs in one of the site’s pubs well into the wee hours.

As the ensuing conversation demonstrated, despite the mature air of those beards and moustaches, Grinderman is a band for men who won’t let go of their adolescent urges…

eMusic: How did you enjoy Grinderman’s live debut last night?

Nick Cave: It was the most nerve-wracking thing I’ve done in 35 years. There was a lot of pressure for some reason, this mounting pressure… Not only from watching other artists play these extraordinary sets, this top-grade shit going on here at ATP, but then there’s all this stuff like, how does the song go? How do you do it? Plus, there’s an urgency about Grinderman, not just in the music, but in the playing. The thing’s pretty on the edge, and in the moment. Which is exciting for me, and part of the reason for doing it.

eMusic: Nick, could you talk us through your relationship with the electric guitar. Is your, shall we say, lack of virtuosity a defining factor of the group?

NC: Erm, it’s a work in progress. I can see that this interview is going to be a mojo sapper, and tonight I’m going to up there going [mimes fumbling fretwork]. I hadn’t really played it much before — amazing, isn’t it?! It was Jim who took me to buy the guitar. We went into the guitar shop [on 30th St in New York] and they said, ‘Do you wanna try it out?’I said, ‘No!’I took it home, and a month later we recorded the album. I got a chord book as well, and tried to learn some chords, but we just plugged it in, and it sounded so fucking good that I ended up being the guitarist. When we were writing the songs, I was never supposed to be the guitarist.

Warren Ellis: That’s what you thought.

NC: I always thought that they would get, or we would get, a guitarist, once we’d sorted ourselves out. But then Warren refused to be in the band if I didn’t play the guitar.

WE: I wasn’t going to turn that one down.

NC: We wanted to take the piano out of it. There’s a little bit of piano in one song. It was not so much to get away from the keyboard per se, as to get away from the stateliness of the keyboard that has crept into some of the Bad Seeds stuff, I think. One good thing about playing the guitar is, you can fucking shut the guitar up when you want to sing, whereas you can’t if some other c***’s playing it.

“I stopped listening to Nick Cave when I joined the Bad Seeds.”

eMusic: The album certainly has more of a raw, spontaneous feel. Did it happen that way in the studio, or was it actually all carefully written in advance?

WE: Nick had a few lines scribbled down beforehand.

NC: Like ‘woah!’and ‘yeah!’

WE: And ‘no pussy!’We bashed around for five days or something, to see what came out. We made a load of stuff, maybe 50 or 60 different pieces of music, and then listened back through it really quickly and critically.

NC: So we kind of put it together in the studio. We were in one way trying to make a record that we could actually listen to at home. With the Bad Seeds, I’ve never been able to do that, mostly because, it’s not that I dislike the music, but I feel that there’s so much of myself in it, it’s quite painful to listen to. In a lot of ways, I don’t feel like I’m making those records for myself. Weirdly enough, with Grinderman, I can go home and put it on, and listen to it and enjoy it. It’s been the first record for a very long time where I’ve been able to do that. That’s not to say that I don’t think that the Bad Seeds records are good, it’s just that I have a different relationship with them. They’re so much about me, and my world, that I find it difficult to listen to them. In fact, I just don’t listen to them, basically.

WE: I stopped listening to Nick Cave when I joined the Bad Seeds.

NC: Me too.

eMusic: Martyn, Jim, one for you: with Nick moving mostly to guitar, and Warren to loops, mandolin, etc., how does Grinderman differ from the Bad Seeds from your perspective?

Jim Sclavunos: It’s a lot more high-energy than the Bad Seeds. You gotta really be supercharged from the outset. And it gives me an opportunity to bring out my pink wardrobe.

Martyn Casey: Being only four people, it’s probably a lot more basic than what we do with the Bad Seeds. And there’s a big area to fill. A lot of the songs with Grinderman are based around the rhythm that we came up with — and the loops that Warren made — rather than the piano that’s driving the Bad Seeds.

WE: When we do a Bad Seeds album, Nick’ll have a dozen songs ready, then we go in and work out how to play them. With Abattoir Blues, we bashed out some ideas, the four of us, then Nick went away and made some sense of it all. I guess that’s what he’s doing with the next one too. With Grinderman, we all came in like a kind of co-op, with a clear slate. I’d sent Nick a couple of loops that he thought were, like, funny, and we took it from there, which had a marked effect on how the album turned out. Much less considered, I guess.

JS: Yuh!

WE: Because we were trying to find what sound we might have, it was totally thrilling to do. We didn’t know what would come out at the end. We knew it had to be short, and to the point — under 40 minutes — but we had no idea what it was gonna be.

eMusic: Is the band name intended to be evocative of the sound you make?

NC: Grinderman has a lot of pleasing connotations. It actually comes from an old Memphis Slim song, “Grinderman Blues,” but I’d heard it from a John Lee Hooker song. He did a version — as he does, of other people’s songs — called “Grinder Man.” We were looking around for a name and we had this song called “Grinderman” and it just seemed to be the right name. It suggests a lot of things, but mostly that our music kind of grinded and there was a kind of sexual edge to it.

“She was a drug addict and a prostitute and one of the happiest people I’ve ever met.”

eMusic: There’s a lot of sexual tension in the lyrics: the obvious example is ‘No Pussy Blues’. Where did that come from?

NC: I’d written that title in my book — just one of a million different things that I write in a notebook. I remember thinking it was kind of cool, but there’s no way I could make a song out of it. When we were actually in the studio, I opened the book and there was this title and I just started to kind of riff on that idea. “Depth Charge Ethel”? That’s loosely based on an old girlfriend of mine who hung around with the Birthday Party. She was a drug addict and a prostitute and one of the happiest people I’ve ever met.

But then, there is a more introspective, melancholy kind of music that Grinderman do. It seems to me important that that kind of music is represented, because it kind of energises the louder songs. If I have a theme within what I generally write about, it’s about two people trying to escape the world in some way. ‘Honey Bee,’to me, is like that. ‘Honey Bee’is, you know, the biblical story of Joseph and Mary’s flight out of Egypt. It’s about the Slaughter of the Innocents and the kind of general hell of the world, with a slightly ironic element that perhaps it isn’t actually as hellish as we’re led to believe.

eMusic: Is it a relief to you, Nick, to be doing something more democratic?

NC: The Bad Seeds is very much, I’m the frontman out there, and the band are back there, so it’s really nice to feel like you’re a member of a band. In Grinderman, we’re in close together, and I really like that about it. In rehearsals, we’re looking at each other, and it’s very tight in. I actually move around a lot more in the Bad Seeds. I think we might be giving the impression that a Bad Seeds gig is all sitting quietly at the piano. But it’s actually, for me, incredibly punishing, physically. To do a Bad Seeds tour, is really fucking hard. I’m nearly 50 [smiles ruefully], and there’s a lot more movement. One of the really enjoyable things about doing the Grinderman stuff, and playing the guitar, is that I don’t have to do that as much — I can create energy in a different kind of a way. Most of my onstage antics are just a nerves thing, so I run around all over the place.

eMusic: It doesn’t really sound like you need any more unpredictability and danger in your creative life…

NC: Look, we don’t want the Grinderman thing to be a self-indulgent exercise, but it is hugely enjoyable to do for us. There was even a huge enjoyment in the blind panic of last night. With the Bad Seeds, I kind of know that it’s gonna be all right. The band are really good, they know what they’re doing. It’s a very different feeling.

WE: Grinderman didn’t just appear last week. It’s been really natural. We’ve been doing it for four years, bashing away at soundchecks, finding a different sound, and a different way of playing — just the four of us together.

eMusic: What on earth was Bobby Gillespie [better known as Primal Scream's singer] doing up there with you last night? He hit things and did backing vocals for the whole set! Is he the fifth Grinder?

WE: He just kept ringing and asking to play with us. [Poor imitation of Gillespie's Scottish accent] ‘I love the record, it’s foockin’great, let me sing!’

NC: We needed percussion, because there’s a lot of percussion on there. The thing about Bobby is that he just loves rock & roll. He’s so enthusiastic.

WE: I met him in Australia in the ’90s, and have got to know him since then. We’ve always talked about music. He came in when we mixed the album for a day, then he got the album and thought it was so fantastic — that everything had been kind of thrown up in the air. He loved the spirit of it. Then when we were thinking about doing live stuff, we just asked him if he’d like to do it. He throws himself into stuff. He doesn’t stand back. [Thinks, evidently about the previous evening's show.] I saw a couple of girls fainting during our set. Then some turd threw an apple at me.

NC: Who fainted?

WE: [casually, pointing with regal disinterest at his feet] A few chicks were, you know, fainting… [much laughter]

NC: It was the fucking guitar work! [more laughter]

WE: No, it was actually during the Dirty Three set. We’re more of a girls band.

NC: The festival itself is fantastic, I think. You’ve got some stuff on here that a lot of people haven’t heard, and would never listen to in their lives. You see people drifting into one gig, and trying to work it out, then halfway through realising they’re watching something extraordinary, then by the end, they’re applauding something they’d never have had the opportunity to hear otherwise.

WE: Yeah, but some turd threw an apple at me and hit me in the fucking head.

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