The beard is gone, and suddenly Nick Cave looks ten years younger. Moving elastically as if he was made of rubber, he enters the old-fashioned pub with the creaky floorboards where we agreed to meet for an interview. It’s a short way for the singer, the pub is within walking distance from his house in Brighton. Cave, in his customary black suit and white shirt, takes off his sunglasses and greats two women with the words “hi girls, how’re you doing?”. The singer himself is doing very well. He doesn’t smoke and drink anymore, he is agile and alert. During the following hour, we’ll talk about the effects the increased research possibilities provided by the internet have on his work as an author, the old days in Westberlin and the re-orientation of the Bad Seeds on the new album Push The Sky Away that is about to be released. It’s a hazy and grey day, and during pauses in our conversation, the wind carries over the cries of seagulls from the nearby ocean shore.
TEXT: Max Dax PHOTOS: Nic Shonfeld (Translation: Selysia)
(Interview translation + scans under the cut)
Mr. Cave, would you say that the writing and particularly the research of texts, lyrical and poetical texts also, has changed due to the internet and the archives that are available there? I’m especially asking about your writing of course.
I’ve always been writing, with pen and paper, with a typewriter, lately on the computer. And I’ve always been researching a lot and very intensively, to give my texts accuracy, which indeed only happens when you go deep.
Wouldn’t you say that it’s easier to tie up loose ends in a story or a song text, the more specific knowledge you collect – and the easier this knowledge is accessible?
I have a strong visual desire, I need to be able to visualize my songs. It’s only when I can visualize the actual scene of a song, when I can grasp it, that it works for me. I could draw everything that happens in my songs in a storyboard, that’s how accurately I see the story lines and the scenery in my head. I used to draw city maps and land maps to be able to find my way around my songs. Basically, I have extensive notes regarding the periphery of events – they are the basic reason why I would describe my texts as grounded.
How does it affect your songwriting, now that you’re able to expand your research to the internet?
The internet makes a huge difference. For me, it’s a gigantic reservoir of knowledge that I can access – whenever and wherever I want. In the end, I don’t even care whether the results of my research are true, or whether they contain inconsistencies. For me, it’s the truth of the internet, an inherent truth that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with reality. It has made my songwriting more dense and intensive. It makes it possible for me to pay even more attention to detail than before. Especially the esoteric details make a difference.
Take the search term “Martin Luther King”. With one mouse click, I get to his Wikipedia entry. I skim through it, but then I get caught on some specific detail. Some esoteric detail I didn’t know about before. One more mouse click takes me to another text, let’s say…
…about Harold Leventhal?
…okay, let’s say about him. The important thing is that this kind of mental leap doesn’t take place in a specific time. You just follow an inner “stream of consciousness”. Do you know Leventhal?
Not personally. But I know of course that he was the foremost concert promoter of the East Coast during the time of the American Civil Rights Movement, and that he was the one to let the young Bob Dylan sing at the Civil Rights March on Washington.
Exactly. And I like to navigate through that kind of knowledge when I voluntarily lose myself in the internet. It’s up to me how deep I want to dive into it. In order to reach the visual quality I seek, which is also a narrative quality, I used to have to go to libraries. The library pass, thesaurus dictionaries, trade-specific dictionaries, and last but not least the bible were always essential to my writing process.
That seems to implicate a slow and patient process.
On the contrary, I’m a high-speed writer. And I write a lot.
Is it easy for you to write so fast because you’ve always written journals?
It’s more impatience that drives me. And this impatience has grown immensely since I don’t have to wait for letters from Australia anymore, but instead everything I want to know is only a mouse click away. Once I know what I want, I want to finish it. Believe me: Only do one thing at a time. Finish a text first before you start the next. You’ll achieve more that way than if you try multitasking.
How do you deal with the fact that much of the information you can find on the internet is simply not true, and therefore not to be trusted?
I think it’s great. I don’t care in the least that I can’t rely on Wikipedia. A friend of mine recently stated that half of what’s written on Wikipedia is complete bullshit and totally made up. And then I asked him where he got that information, and he replied that he’d read it on Wikipedia.
What I like about Wikipedia is that in all honesty, you call it “library of disinformation”. I sense a poetic sweetness in the fact that the inconsistencies of Wikipedia seem to mirror our own subjective memories. We human beings remember very subjectively. Certainly you remember the moments when we previously met quite differently than I do. The whole idea of the history of mankind is a fiction. Our common history is a myth.
In your new song “We Real Cool” you even sing “Wikipedia is heaven”.
That refers to my unfortunately very fragmentary capacity of remembering. I have close to no memories of my time in Berlin. I seem to have burnt a number of fuses in my brain, that much is certain. I’m pretty sure that I can assign it to the quality of the Berlin speed. You could ask me something about it now, and I wouldn’t be able to put it into context. And honestly? It doesn’t get better with age. So that’s why I praise the internet. It makes it possible for me to connect with the memories of others.
But you still have your journals.
Now you’re taking it a step further and release your new album in a deluxe edition in which you document the process of creating the nine songs in a book. It makes it clear that these are songs that deal with the process of writing songs.
I’m making the reflexion about the writing into the subject of my art. Was it a coincidence that a year ago, a very good friend of mine sent me a beautiful bound note book? She lives in Australia and runs a kind of bookbinder boutique. The note book she sent me was specially designed by her for me. When I held this magical book in my hand, I decided to do the entire writing work for “Push The Sky Away” in this book. Every text layer, every correction – everything in this virginal, freshly made note book. This time, I wanted to work as I used to do. When I’d collected 20 pages of notes for a song, I would sit down in front of the typewriter and type it up on the backsides of old book pages that I meticulously pried out of books lying around in my apartment. Every page that I made in this manner I stamped with my German date stamp. In this sense, the book accompanying the deluxe edition is providing the autopsy, or the anatomy of the new songs.
All the songs on your new album revolve around daydreams. They reflect the writer of the songs as well as their contents.
There is a new song called “Jubilee Street”. It’s here in Brighton. And there’s another new song with the title “Finishing Jubilee Street”. That basically says it all. And in “Water’s Edge”, I sing about the city girls, coming from the capital to swim, parading their bodies on the beach, knowing that the boys behind the rocks are watching them. I travel around the world with my songs, but most of all they are journeys of the imagination. Almost all the stories I tell lately, I observed looking out of the windows of my house. I see the people walking up and down the sidewalk in front of my house. And from another window, I can see the sea.
Do you write down your dreams?
No. But it happens that I wake up because I’m brooding over an idea in half-sleep. Then I try to grasp it by making notes.
Do you wake up often at night?
Yes. Usually at about two or three in the morning. Lately, I’m going to sleep earlier. And I suspect that my light sleep around that time of night has to do with the workings of my brain. And when I get up in the morning, I often discover that I didn’t have to go through the trouble of writing something down – that’s how banal some of my nightly notes are.
When you ask a small child what it had dreamed at night the dream is mixing with the waking state. The borders between reality and fantasy are non-existent. But that’s not really a bad thing. Just like Wikipedia?
Exactly, after all, I’m not an information office. The moment when I manage to pull a listener into my world, I have succeeded. What they perceive in this world, and what they take with them from it, I do not control.
The daydreaming gets most pronounced in the song “Higgs Boson Blues” – here you mix your own work in your basement study with Robert Johnson’s story and the search for the Higgs Boson particle in the CERN in Geneva.
That’s right. The defining factor though was that finally the hot sun was shining into my basement. That doesn’t happen very often in Brighton. The heat caused my mind to travel to the south of the USA, to that crossroads where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil. And that way, this strange story about infinity develops, further and further, line after line – in my basement.
Robert Johnson and Leadbelly were the godfathers of your Grinderman project. When you make him a topic now, to what extent do you make music about music?
In this song, I’m hopping from one allegorical water lily leaf to the next – and each water lily leaf stands for a kind of spiritual failure. The Higgs Boson particle has also been called the “god particle”. There were heretics who claimed that the confirmation of the Higgs Boson particle would negate the existence of God. And what sort of spiritual catastrophe was it really that Robert Johnson met the devil? It’s clear that both cases are extreme situations. What’s unclear is whether the devil might actually have made the worse deal.
“He got the real killer groove / Robert Johnson and the devil, man / Don’t know who’s gonna rip off who.”
How exact and how precise do you want to be with your lines?
As precise as possible. Like a gambler, I put my money on the strongest lines I can manage to produce. The greatest possible intensity I can create with words – that’s what I’m looking for.
Were you ever afraid that an actual black hole would be created in Geneva?
To be honest, I don’t worry about that. But the subject was very suited for my song.
The Bad Seeds took a step in a new direction when Warren Ellis more and more took on the role of bandleader. This new delight in musical textures first manifested itself in the complexity of loudness with Grinderman, and now with the Bad Seeds as texture in quieter songs.
Warren gave the Bad Seeds his immense love for detail. I had to get used to his level of musicality, the magic of his ideas. We didn’t have that with the Bad Seeds before. Unlike in the past, we often develop songs on the basis of his complex loops today.
The loudness of Grinderman was followed by the relaxed sound of the new Bad Seeds. Is that a new chapter? The calm after the storm?
Clearly, the Bad Seeds are going in a new direction. We cut out the dead wood and are moving forward.
Why were the Bad Seeds unable to explode of late? Why did you need the detour Grinderman to make your example?
I almost don’t dare say it, but with Grinderman we could…
…and that was after all one half of the Bad Seeds…
…do things we never could have done with the Bad Seeds. It was strange. As a detached quartet, we didn’t have to bear the burden of then almost 25 years of band history on our shoulders. We were confronted with all kinds of freedom. Musically speaking on the one hand, but also if we had wanted to sell Grinderman’s music to a Japanese car brand. We never could have done that with the Bad Seeds. Grinderman were like a frontier town in the Wild West. There was no policy, no agenda. The freedom that went with it was tremendous, and we enjoyed it. The Grinderman experience gave new licence to the Bad Seeds to carry on. And it was a licence we badly needed.
How does the fact that Mick Harvey, the last remaining original member of the Bad Seeds left the band, fit into this development?
I didn’t talk to him about his reasons.
Why did he leave the band?
He left the band. That much I can say. It wouldn’t be fair to talk about it in his absence. But it was the right step at the right time for him. I like him very much, and I miss him. But it was a decision that was beneficial for the band. I also miss Blixa very much in the band, I love Blixa. And I’m a big fan of everything he did since he left. But in some respects, it was right for him to leave the band. Especially for the Bad Seeds.
What do you think about Blixa Bargeld’s latest collaboration with Alva Noto?
Don’t know it. Haven’t heard it. But one thing is certain: an artist needs change. If change doesn’t happen, you die.
Bob Dylan had great problems forcing this kind of change in the eighties, when he was about 50 years old. You’re 55 now, and apparently you’ve been able to circumnavigate this sort of midlife crisis.
The Dylan of the eighties is a monument for all of us of course. Above all else, he never was a collaborator. He always works at his own risk, he doesn’t seek exchange. I on the other hand am not a solo artist. I always had exchange with my comrades-in-arms. And I plan on handling it that way until the bitter end. If I hadn’t done that from the beginning, since my youth – unlike Dylan, I quite possibly would never have become a singer. To make music together, and to allow the ideas of the others into the process, is the basis for inspiration. But it’s also part of collaborative work that at some point, it’ll come to an end. In that sense there was a beginning and an end with Blixa – and with Mick Harvey and with all the others. It’s in the nature of collaborative work.
Are you saying that every end forces re-orientation? To calibrate supposed certainties?
You know: Everything that keeps the Bad Seeds alive is allowed. For me, every change is the right decision as long as it keeps the band together. That’s also why it’s allowed that each one of us has worked in other projects or with other media. All of us have always carried the experiences we made back to the respective incarnation of the Bad Seeds.
Why do the Bad Seeds need to survive at all? Aren’t three decades of existence enough for a band? You could easily pick a famed producer, say Rick Rubin, and continue without the burden of a band.
That just doesn’t enter my mind. I’ve always seen the Bad Seeds as a part of me. The older we become, the more interesting the Bad Seeds become as an idea of community. Old comrades become part of the process again – parts of the new album were recorded with Barry Adamson on bass guitar. The fact that he, as a founding member, was with us once again serves as a confirmation for my belief in an ideal of a musicians collective as a life design that is continually moving forward. I also asked Blixa if he’d like to play guitar, and he was happy about the invitation. Unfortunately there were circumstances that made this comeback impossible.
Did he have to go to a parent-teacher conference?
In any case, he would have loved to be part of the project.
How do you evaluate terms like loyalty and love in this particular context?
We’re not John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Unlike them, we have the possibility to expand and to contract again. Our understanding of the term collective is permeable. In my mind, that makes the Bad Seeds a pretty singular occurrence in the music world. The Bad Seeds are neither my supporting band, nor are they session musicians. No, we are a dynamical collective in which each musician has a great influence on the music. Miles Davis once said this fantastic sentence: “You have to understand your limitations”. I have internalized this notion: I have to know my weaknesses in order to survive – and have the greatness to consult others when I meet my limits. Because they just might know better than I do. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in those almost 30 years we are travelling with the Bad Seeds, it’s that. And it goes further than that: Frank Sinatra was still performing concerts when he was 80. And the Rolling Stones are taken seriously again – for one or two decades, they were perceived as redundant.
Have you heard David Bowie’s new single? He released it on his website.
What a wonderful song! I see Berlin before my eyes – the city Westberlin that doesn’t exist anymore. It only took all those names of places he sang, and my whole blurry time in Berlin passed before my inner eye again. The KaDeWe! The Potsdamer Platz! The Dschungel! What a lyrical, beautiful song! It’s simply wonderful that he came back again. What also pleases me is the warmth with which the people welcomed him back, after he’s been absent for so long. I didn’t really understand the last albums he made before his long pause anymore. So I was all the more excited about the new song. It means something to me again. It touches me deeply. I mean, David Bowie’s not merely a performer. He was part of our childhood. In my eyes, Bowie stands for a certain kind of immortality.
Because he was always there?
David Bowie was my idol. I owned all his early albums and the three Berlin records of course. I loved his music. I don’t want someone like David Bowie to die. A song that appears out of the blue, and at his 66th birthday no less, just leaves me thoroughly happy. When you hear the voice of a person that you love, it’s like a tender touch. And the fact that this voice did, of all things, sing about my city – that blew me away.
Have you ever met David Bowie personally?
No. But I’ve once been addressed by Bob Dylan, that will have to suffice. He probably mistook me for Nicholas Cage… or Jarvis Cocker.
Interview by Max Dax for Spex Magazine, March 2013.
German text translation by Selysia. (All rights reserved by translator.)
Scans by Selysia, photography by Nic Shonfeld.