A Conversation with Nick Cave

This interview was held in regards to the second Grinderman album at a hotel in Berlin on June 30th 2010. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis were lounging after a late breakfast, irritated about the interview marathon they had to face. This is the raw material transcript, unedited, unabridged.

Wortraub: Hi, great to meet you … well, the record company told me that you wanted the journalists to have access to the lyrics upfront so that we know what to talk about with you. So I guess the lyrics are centrally important to this record. Why is that?

Cave: No, that was the record companies idea. Not mine. Maybe they wanted to make sure you guys did not show up here ill-prepared and half-cocked. How about that?

Wortraub [irritated]: Ok … but still, let’s roll with it, if you don’t mind. For Grinderman 2 I was reminded of the Murder Ballads – you are returning to talking about monstrosities and human relations, right?

Cave: Yeah, but I am always talking about that stuff

Ellis: It’s in the characters, that’s where you got it from.

Wortraub: Ok, how would you describe the theme then?

Cave: Sometimes what I feel about this record is that there is this girl in „Heathen Child“ and she is sitting in the bathtub and she is trembling on the point of change and transformation. And she is having these thoughts about things, these visions. And there are these darker aspects of her subconscious are rising up. That is sometimes what the whole record feels like.

Wortraub: Is that something that arises out of you?

Cave: I think the process of writing the music, I think the process of singing the lyrics which are often ad-libbed to begin with, when we go into the studio. Something is coming from a different part of me sometimes.

Wortraub: Is that a different part of you than you could express on the Bad Seeds-Album?

Cave: I think it is more intuitive.

Ellis: It is more instinctive. It is not like it is in his mind, when he comes into the studio. It is something that is rather in the particular moment. Everything goes on all at once. Nick has some ideas for the lyrics when we start out, but then it all starts feeding upon one another. Someone might play something and he might go off on it. He’ll sing something and then we will go off on that and it clears out in the way it goes. It is very much creating in the moment, going along, as opposed to trying to set something up.

Wortraub: So, the Bad Seeds is more premeditated.

Ellis: No I wouldn’t say that, …

Cave: … well, it is. The songs are …

Ellis: … not the way the songs are recorded.

Cave: … largely written outside the studio, while the songs for Grinderman are largely written inside the studio. The initial songwriting at least.

Ellis: Well, the difference is that you come in with whole ideas for the Bad Seeds, but by and large – excluding the last album and maybe Abbatoir Blues – for all of it, the thing is that most people hadn’t heard anything you come in with. It is not like we rehearsed it for months and months when we were going to record. It is really well prepared on Nick’s behalf. But to us the material has no real shape yet – it is what keeps the Bad Seeds‘ recorded stuff with that sense of urgency about it. They are pretty much like first or second takes.

Wortraub: But isn’t Grinderman 2 more deliberate, like you know where you are and where you want to go with this record?

Ellis: But that is going to be inevitable, isn’t it?

Cave: There is certainly no discussion as to where we were going to go when we first met in the studio. It is a more accomplished sound though, if that is what you mean.

Ellis: It would have been really disappointing if we had come in and make a second album that was like the first album. This one to me actually feels a lot wilder than the first one.

Cave: Me too.

Ellis: In every sense this one is much wilder than the first one.

Wortraub: I had the feeling this one is less chaotic …

Ellis: No, there is a certain energy to it. It is more chaotic, too. It is seriously unhinged. The other one, you immediately go: „yeah, right.“ It is just this apparent thing. This one is actually much more chaotic and much more dense and much more out there, in every sense: musically, lyrically. It feels like a real step off the edge – this one. I don’t even know where it is half the time.

Wortraub: „When my baby comes“ for example feels like you were letting go off the music, experimenting. But it does not seem as noisy …

Ellis and Cave [in unison]: … and what about the „Worm Tamer“?

Wortraub: Isn’t there a lot of intertextual references in there? Not just there but in all of your lyrics on this record. Beasts like the Abominable Snowman, religion like the Spider Goddess, which is Mexican in origin …

Cave: … oh, is it?

Wortraub: Yeah … you didn’t know?

Cave: No [irony glints in his eyes – or maybe not?] – I just made that up. There you go, you googled and found something.

Wortraub [off balance now]: Yeah, uhm. Is it a poetical choice then or are the meaningful aspects to it? Do you want to convey something special?

Cave: I try and convey something with everything I do.

Ellis: Yeah, he always does this.

Cave: For me they are archetypes, rising out of the unconscious. For me, when I dream for example, I dream in these kind of archetypes: particular kinds of symbols that represent certain things. But we are talking real general things here. If you take one song – it is not about that. It is more general than that. The monsters, on this record, are internal. The Murder Ballads monsters are external.

Wortraub: But aren’t they driven by the same things, the same fears, desires, emotions?

Cave: Yeah, I guess so. You can look at it that way. One thing that happened to this record, which is something that always happens. Someone from the record company makes a decision about us and they relate it to the press. One is: „Read the lyrics on the album!“ and no one asks me if anyone should read the lyrics. They assume there is Nick Cave the lyric writer. They assume on my behalf that you should go and read the lyrics. So constantly everyone is being told to go and read the lyrics. So all the journalists come and say: „Oh this is obviously about the lyrics“ and actually the lyrical aspect of this record is not so important. It is much more that the music is important. It is a much more musical record than it is a lyrical record. This is an eternal problem with people’s assumptions and the way they think things should be approached. Just to let you know, I don’t want you to feel you have to talk about the record lyrically.

Ellis: Through that lens you think that you got some understanding of it, make some meaning with it. That can destroy lyrics as well.

Wortraub: Is it like asking a poet to explain his poetry?

Ellis: You might loose the rhythm of the language sometimes if you trying to … what’s this? And what’s this? You know? It is like there is a word jumping out here and a word jumping out there but it all has no reference…

Wortraub: But you have been read through that lens quite often. You have always been read as making „intellectual music“ and have been interpreted this way.

Cave: This is true though.

Ellis: Would you be worried about that?

Cave: No, I am not worried about that. In general, of any writer out there, I spend enormous amount of time trying to get words right and you know, it is very much about the lyrics most of the time … but I think, it might be the whole take this time might be more balanced if we did not try to analyze the lyrics on this particular records. That is not to say I did not spend a lot of time on them or did not approach them with a great amount of care and that I am not really proud of them. I mean, I am trying to get to something different here with Grinderman. The things may be the same because they come out of me and I got to be true to myself and my preoccupations but the way of using language needs to be different. Something like that particular song „Heathen Child“ I think is lyrically different … language is used differently. It is much more repetitive, there is much more space.

Ellis: There is much more whipping …

Cave: Yeah, there is that …

Ellis: I mean, you get a thing going, the band gets a thing going and we all start whipping on something. Spontaneously, quite often we start off on it …

Cave: But at the same time I do go back, I do take those lyrics  to being on my own. Sitting with those lyrics and writing them the best way that I can.

Wortraub: In „Evil“ for example, the lyrics are more rhythmic, used melodically … a chorus, rising from beneath. It is not what you say, but how you say it, right?

Cave: Absolutely, especially on a song like that. „Evil“ is a definite attempt at the simplicity of language that goes on … [grasps for words] the record player. Maybe I am the record player, or you be my record player [shakes his head]. This kind of stuff. There is a verse that kind of leaps out towards the end that is about something. Very much about something particular. That defines the song. Ultimately, it is about getting a sense, an atmosphere of the song. The lyrics transport an atmosphere of the song and in that particular case a sense of real anxiety within the song.

Wortraub: From a musical perspective, it stays within the bounds of what you have done with the first record. Except for the break that it has in „The Palaces of Montezuma“ which strikes a happier note, a lighter side to you?

Cave: It is funny, that people see that song as more structured, even as more traditional pop structure. That was … that song really was just happening. It was where we were all just … [makes whining guitar sounds] and I kind of started singing some stuff and basically the lyrics were around what I initially sang and ad-libbed it from there. The idea was that as artists we might give anything that we like, we might take from wherever we want – I don’t know how to describe it. But that is what that song is about.

Wortraub: Is that why the references are so eclectic? Because you can choose to be inspired by anything?

Cave: Yeah, I think we just kind of liked the lyrics to that song and the music went from there.

Wortraub: But the characters on the record are rather dark, this one kind of seems to be more positive.

Ellis: Yeah, it is the psychedelic song of the album. It is like a landslide down …

Cave: Maybe we should have used that …

Ellis: No, it is not. What I meant is that… [mumbling back and forth between both]

Wortraub: What do you mean, as a title?

Cave: [ignores that]… I mean it is the psychedelic song, right? I mean I could have used this …[starts singing] Psychedelic song …

Wortraub: What?

Cave: [snaps out off it] Sorry, man. That was just a comment to Warren. [both smile]

Wortraub: Well, maybe on Youtube someone will call it that and it will for all eternity become the psychedelic song … are you afraid that people might misunderstand your songs?

Cave: I think as a writer – and most writers would say the same thing – as a writer you write for the kind of perfect listener. You have a perfect listener involved. And that is an attentive listener, someone who kind of … and an educated listener, so that they know certain pieces and of course most people barely listen to music in that way. I don’t even listen to music in that way. I mean there are certainly songs that I have listened to like this but most of the time… I mean … no, you know what. Forget about that. But you do have a kind of perfect listener. But you understand that people listen to music in their own ways. Some people don’t listen to lyrics at all, some don’t have an ear for them.

Ellis: But you don’t need to, right?
Cave: Exactly, not really. I am not sure I understand „Brown Sugar“ from the Stones

Ellis: I don’t …

Wortraub: Not sure if Mick Jagger does …

Cave: But it is surprising with the way you can google stuff, and you can google „Brown Sugar“ from the Stones … but I mean I have been listening to this song for years and I have not listened to the lyrics and now I can read them on google. And they are actually kind of accomplished.

Wortraub: But with lyrics such as yours, like let’s say „Orpheus‘ Lyre“ – everyone can now google and get the idea of the myth …

Cave: … or you could just have an education.

Wortraub: There is that, but now everyone can get the Cliff notes on the net. Does that make it harder or easier to write the lyrics? Thinking about how people get their meaning from the net?

Cave: No, it doesn’t make any difference at all. The internet is really irrelevant in that respect. Even though some of the images on this record are dark, they are also really playful and it is exciting to see what happens to them … I mean, there is Mickey Mouse, and Steve McQueen. I mean it is like: throw all these images together and see what comes out.

Wortraub: But some of these are rather hard to get. I mean, everyone knows how Oprah is but in the „Bellringer Blues“ you are, for example, referencing an old English nursery rhyme…

Cave: Oh yeah? Yeah, that …

Wortraub: Yes, „Ride a Cock-horse to Banburry Cross“ … I had to look it up and asked myself what you want people to get from this?

Cave: Yeah, that is right. But that is the intention of it. I mean, you can engage with the song or you can just leave it at that. I would just say that I don’t just throw words together and hope for the best. I spend a real amount of time working at the lyrics. And they have resonances for me that are there for other people too. Warren will know this, but if I don’t feel like there are different levels to what I am saying, then I get very dissatisfied with what I am singing about and with the song itself.

Ellis: Yeah, I mean, I have been around many songwriters and you seem to approach it in a different way.

Cave: I am songwriter and to write a song, you have to kind of write in shorthand. To me these archetypes, like Mickey Mouse for example … you only have to say that and it brings out a whole lot of images, a whole lot of feelings and it is a very direct kind of short hand. If I say wolf man, I don’t have to describe that the wolf man is evil, you will have all those other associations with that particular character as well. I don’t want it to be that simplistic …

Wortraub: Well, I could go on discussing this … but I guess time is up, so thanks and see you for Grinderman 3 then.