Interview: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds
[To celebrate their 15th studio album Push The Sky Away, we invited Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds to take control of eMusic's editorial for a week. This is our exclusive interview with Nick Cave and Bad Seed Warren Ellis about their dazzling new album. The band also nominated Australian rock icon Ed Kuepper for an interview, and they share their favorite albums on eMusic — you can read those features here. — Ed.]
It has been five years since Nick Cave last corralled his ever-changing Bad Seeds line-up — which, by the by, is now approaching its 30th anniversary. In the interim, Cave has been far from idle: There has been a rip-roaring, blues-mangling second Grinderman album, a couple of movie soundtracks and even another novel, all not only proving his unflagging creative vigor, but also bolstering his standing as perhaps alt-rock’s ultimate icon.
So, the arrival of Push The Sky Away, the 15th Bad Seeds album, is a real event: Where next for this fearsomely stagnation-resistant musical auteur? The answer, in short, is deeper into the psycho-sexual imagination of 2008′s Dig Lazarus, Dig!!!, where an unforeseen, if ever volcanically smouldering calm now reigns. As with 1997′s The Boatman’s Call, it strips away the usual electrifying clamor which surrounds Cave’s baritone croon, leaving the listener to plunge deep into his lyrics of violence, sexual tension, redemption and songwriting itself.
Cave has jokingly noted that if this album is “the ghost-baby in the incubator, then Warren Ellis’s loops are its tiny, trembling heartbeat.” Ellis, who joined the band in ’95 as a violinist, has risen through the ranks to become Cave’s right-hand man, this time laying the sonic foundation-stone for many of the tracks with the bizarre self-concocted loops that click, crack and rattle away beneath the conventional instrumentation.
Talking to eMusic’s Andrew Perry about this dazzling new opus, Cave and Ellis reveal that its loose, spontaneous sound was the culmination of a long and arduous creative process. Yet, unlike so many ‘mature’ rockers, they ultimately let their instincts — however much honed by years of experience — run riot…
As ever, your songs on Push The Sky Away have a rollicking narrative dynamic to them. How do they start off down that road?
Nick Cave: The way I take in the world is by seeing it; that is very much evident in the songs that I write. I’m unable to really write the kind of song that doesn’t have a visual element, which most songs don’t. There’s that kind of song, “Whoah baby, I love you,” which doesn’t have a visual element, but a very strong emotional element, and these are the great songs to me — those ones that you put them on and they just make you feel great, or whatever.
One of my regrets, if I have any, is that I’ve never been able to write those sorts of songs. I have to be able to see the thing that’s going on that I’m writing about, or else it just doesn’t make any sense to me. So, unfortunately, I personally don’t like other people doing those kinds of songs. I don’t like those songs where you have to listen to a story to get into them. I don’t want to have to pay attention to music in that way, I just want it to hit me in the heart and do what music’s supposed to do.
So I’ve had to try and find a way over the years of writing narratively that doesn’t really require you to sit down and work out what the story’s about. You’re brought into a sort of sequence of images that have that emotional resonance, but it’s kind of irrelevant what the actual story is. It’s taken me maybe 13 albums or something to work that out.
Was there any apprehension about making the first Bad Seeds album in five years?
Warren Ellis: Not so much apprehension, but there was a certain excitement, because things have been in a state of flux, with Grinderman and various projects going on. And remarkably it has been five years since the last album, which I didn’t realize. And obviously with [long-serving Bad Seeds band leader] Mick Harvey leaving, there were a lot of different things going on.
But you don’t go into war thinking you’re going to get killed in the first hour. You have to kind of go in, chin up, back straight. You can’t go into it thinking it’s not gonna work. There’s always that sneaking suspicion that you don’t know if it will work or not, but you have to go in with a certain amount of blind confidence and uncertainty. It’s always that mix.
Primarily, obviously, the Bad Seeds exist to accompany Nick’s songs. How did you start it off this time, Nick?
Cave: The way I go about writing records is that I make a calendar date to start the new record, so I have nothing. I don’t have a bunch of notes that I bring into the office, I start with nothing at all. And I actually had a notebook that was made for me by a girl from Sydney: she’d made this kind of boutique notebook for me, because she’d heard me complaining about the fact that notebooks don’t open flat — I write in them, then try and play the lyrics on the piano, but they [claps his hands shut]. So she made, designed, a notebook that would open flat so that I could play the piano and sing from the notebook.
So that was this empty notebook that I took into the studio on that particular day and started writing the record. And as it turned out that notebook became kind of essential in the process of making the record and ended up documenting the writing of these songs in a very minute way.
I’ve always done a lot of research and stuff around the songs that I write so there are pages and pages of writing and you can kind of see these songs emerging. And when they got to a place that where I thought they were ready, I would type them out on my typewriter on the back sheets of old books — I tore out the back sheets — type them and then glue it into the book. So you had these kind of anatomies of songs in this book.
Two of the preceding three non-soundtrack records you’d made were Grinderman albums. Did you have to put your Bad Seeds head back on? Is that how it works?
Cave: Anything that I’m doing I’m writing specifically for a particular project. So I’m sitting down in the office and writing songs for the next Bad Seeds record. I’m not going “Oh, that’s a Grinderman one” and putting that aside for when we do Grinderman, I just don’t work in that way. I wasn’t trying to write anything remotely like Grinderman anyway, so if I started writing something that felt like a Grinderman song, I would dismiss it immediately.
Once the songs were written, the band withdrew to La Fabrique, a 19th-century mansion in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in France, to record them. Why?
Ellis: We wanted to look elsewhere for the formation of the middle ground of the music, to look for another sound. We wanted to record it in a different way, and go and live in this studio for a couple of weeks, and see how that impacted on the recording process, and the evolution of the material. That was something we’d never done before, certainly not in my time in the band. To be in one place for that whole period of time — just ensconce ourselves somewhere, and eat, drink, and think the album. It had a real significant effect on the album, I think.
How did you get that one past your wives? Was it like going off to a holiday camp?
Ellis: No, man, it was boot camp! In the South of France, with lots of cigars. Obviously, the things you’ve done before inform where you don’t wanna go. As much as there had been this sudden urge for wanting to make albums like Grinderman, after a couple of years of that…[we wanted a change]. Also, there have been a couple of soundtracks that Nick and I have done in the meantime, which have been very different, and also impact on the way things go, or where you see you can take the musical journey.
The reduction in the quantity of sound you generated — you saw that coming?
Ellis: Well, yeah, things have been very full for a while. There was a real desire to pull it all back, and let the songs speak in a different way. It’s why you hopefully don’t make the same record twice. This record sounds like the Bad Seeds to me, but different again — almost a marriage between the atmospherics of Your Funeral…My Trial, but with the sparseness of The Boatman’s Call, but nothing like either of those, in terms of the content or emotional impact.
So you turn up at La Fabrique, Nick’s got his batch of songs, you set all the gear up — what happens next?
Cave: Some of these songs, people hadn’t even played them through when we recorded them. Like “Higgs Boson Blues,” I’d never sung the whole song through, right, because especially with something like “Higgs Boson Blues” — it’s a journey, that particular song. Lyrically it’s a journey, and musically it’s a journey as well, a slow-building thing. And that sense of not knowing where the song’s going makes it really interesting to listen to — and we would’ve lost that if we’d tried it two or three times once we’d worked it all out.
So The Bad Seeds are just following the singing, and I don’t even know what the singing is supposed to be doing anyway, I’ve just got a bunch of lyrics which I’m actually editing as I’m singing. So the whole thing is…there’s a sense of newness and adventure and spontaneity to the recordings.
Warren, you’re as close to Nick as anybody: do you ask him what his lyrics are about, so you can get the right mood?
Ellis: Not really, no. The occasional question might get asked, but it’s generally not really the time. You’re not in there to do an interview with the guy. Nick continues to be a writer who very much is concerned with what’s going on with him now. He’s not trying to write a song like he’s 20 anymore — never has, in fact. He’s always been writing about that particular point in time, and it’s a continued journey for him. The narrative is evolving, how he wants it to.
For a single, “We No Who U R” is very brooding and unsettling. What is it about?
Cave: I don’t really want to pin down what was going on when I wrote that song, but I knew what the little birds were, and I knew who the trees were and all the rest of it. But once the music got put to it, it opened up a lot and it became about a much wider, more interesting, ambiguous sort of thing. I know I’m not really telling you anything about it, but it’s not just, “Hey we know who you are and we’re going to come and get you.”
The editing of a song is largely what makes the song for me and I think that actually if I had started going like ‘I want you to burn’ [as he had in a discarded lyric] it would have pinned that song down to a particular thing and made that song a smaller idea than what it is. By leaving that off it’s much more open, broader.
Certain songs seem to be partly about the songwriting process itself. A couple of tracks after “Jubilee Street,” you get “Finishing Jubilee Street,” where “you” — the songwriter — finish that song, as per song title, then go to your bedroom for a lie down, and have a dream about your imaginary child bride. Did you relish the idea of messing with convention, taking the listener out of usual framework of “first this song, next another song”?
Cave: A lot of them were very much connected to being in my office in Brighton and writing. And for some of them, it was the summer so I was outside in my basement patio which is mentioned on occasions, writing the stuff out there as well. So ultimately the record is about a time and place but it’s also about the nature of songwriting as well, on some level. The songs are very often about the process of writing the song I’m singing, if you know what I mean.
There is a real Jubilee Street in Brighton. Was it the inspiration, or maybe the backdrop, for what unfolds in either song?
Cave: To be honest, I thought Jubilee Street was a different street! [laughs] I got it wrong. And then I found out that Jubilee Street was the street with Carluccio’s and the library, and it didn’t really match the street that I was trying to conjure up. So it’s a Jubilee Street of the imagination, shall we say, and obviously the street that this guy’s walking up, with this sorry whatever-she-is, working girl…All I can say is, don’t go down to that Jubilee Street to find any action like that, [laughs] you’re going to be very disappointed!
With that overlapping of songs, it really feels like there’s a narrative flow to the whole album, like everything is inter-connected. Was that the idea?
Cave: The sequencing came about a lot easier than on some of the other records. It had its natural flow that we sort of discovered when we were actually recording stuff, but the songs for sure do have a vague kind of abstracted narrative within the sequencing. So they’re kind of joining hands, and characters flip from one to the other.
Mostly because of the atmospheric consistency of the sound, it ended up very much like a record that you put on, and you enter, and you go through a sequence of songs and you go into a new world, a different world, and the final song kind of releases you from that world. It’s an old school record, in the sense that the songs bolster each other up and refer to each other, and on some level need to be listened to as a bunch of songs.
Ellis: Yeah, it’s like you’re on a journey with the writer. It feels quite surreal, at times. It’s sort of hovering around somewhere. I like that, that it’s open-ended and not very clear-cut, because it keeps you guessing. Hopefully it feels like you’re in the moment with the song, because the songs are real snapshots of that particular moment, when we’re making it. I think the sound of it has that, too. Nick Launay [producer] did a really mighty job with the sound of it, it’s very ‘present’. You feel like you’re sitting on the stool with Nick singing.
On the title track at the end, there’s the lyric, “Some people say it’s just rock ‘n’ roll but it gets you right down to your soul.” Did you intend that line to sum up the whole record?
Cave: There’s something really reductive about that line after this kind of — like, “Higgs Boson Blues,” and all of this journeying through time and place. It kind of telescopes down into something fundamental, and I was very, very pleased with that as a line, to be released from the record, even though it’s kind of throwaway, and not the sort of line I write, and not a visual line.
So, while picking up on some of the threads on Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!, your style of writing is still on the move — continuity within change?
Ellis: All creative people are like that, there are always themes that run through, like that’s your signpost that it’s them. That’s always the challenge — you want it to be different, but you don’t want it to be willfully different, so that it doesn’t feel sincere. You’re always looking for that feeling where you still feel like it’s being true to your voice, but it’s gone somewhere else.
Wonderful as Status Quo are, that’s the example of getting stuck in a rut — although they were quite exciting in their early days. But you wouldn’t want them to do a rap record — for a start, they wouldn’t be able to play the next Jubilee party for the Queen, would they?