Gallery: Nick Cave – The Story booklet scans (Photo credits included with images.)
“Killer Instinct” interview by Andrea Cangioli (1996) is under the page break.
Nick Cave interview by Andrea Cangioli, 1996
(Transcript typed by Rebecca, from her personal copy)
Nick wants to talk about Murder and God!
N. We have to recognize that God and the Devil are the same thing. As soon as the West gets out of this pathetic idea that there are good people and there are bad people, then we will be able to understand things a lot easier. We have the potential of all things, I think, each one of us has the potential of great good and great evil. This is very clearly shown in this Hindu war god type of thing. He has four arms; up in the lower hand, reaching to the goodness, he has a flower, and in the other hand he has a machete and a severed head. And this is a more grounded view. Each one of us has the potential of everything. In fact, Good and Evil are the same thing. (Smiles) This is my bit of philosophy for the morning!
A. Enough for a couple interviews, I guess. But let’s talk about murder. Is the perfect murder possible.
N. You mean, like, is it possible not to get caught? I don’t know.
A. The characters of your record…
N. My record is not supposed to be an exploration of the nature of evil. It’s not supposed to be even a particularly thoughtful look at murder, really. I would say this record is really about language and about rhyming and about story telling, more than anything else. The murder side of it is there just to glue all the other things together, is just the dramatic device that make the stories a little more interesting.
A. I have the impression that there is even more self mocking than usual.
N. I think that there are a couple of songs that are seriously nasty songs in this record. Generally is all kind of comic, funny record.
A. For me that was understandable just, for example, looking at the funny face you put when you kill Kylie, in the video, or just some details in O’Malley’s Bar, or…
N. Yea, I was a bit out of it, I was very free. I think that’s a great vocal part. Basically, the reason why this record of murder ballads exist is that we recorded O’Malley’s Bar when we were remixing the album Live Seeds. I was sitting at the piano in another room of the studio, and I recorded the song.
I was very in love with my performance, that was done completely on the spirit of the moment. I had written the words, but most of them then were improvised. The song was floating around for ages because it was too long to be put in any other record. So Blixa said “Why don’t you make the murder ballads record that you have been threatening to do for the last fifteen years?” I said “All right. Let’s do that. Let’s make a very funny, spirited, quick record about murder!”
A. It took you at least a couple of years to do it, though.
N. Well, it was made over a long period of time, but the actual amount of recording was very small, the songs were recorded extremely quickly. Stagger Lee was conceived, written and recorded in fifteen minutes. We had finished most of the recording, I was sitting in the studio reading a book about afro-American toasts and ballads, and we had been thinking about making a version of Stagger Lee for a long time, and all of a sudden I read the book and I find a fucking great version of it. We went immediately into the studio. Martin (P. Casey) played this dark and funky bass line, everyone joined in, I sang the words and we finished literally in twenty minutes or so. What I’m trying to say is that, because of the process of the recordings, the record doesn’t suffer the incredible kind of worry and messing around like my other records normally do.
A. You had already declared that this record had to be different than any other of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, and that it had to be ‘looser and with many guests’.
N. Yes, there were a few things that I just wanted to do. We sat down and discussed what sort of record we wanted to make. The idea of the murder ballads record came about when we were recording the album Let Love In. I remember designing a cover for it, drawing naked women with their heads cut off and things like that. Since we had the cover we could do the songs! We wanted to make a record that was impossible to tour with, that was the first thing. Then we wanted to make a record where the songs were either too long or too narrative, or not musically interesting enough, or whatever. Or duets, which we did. Make something really quick, like a little thing we just threw off on the side. And have a lot of different artists on it.
A. You also wanted to avoid a certain kind of ‘turgid’ lyrics.
A. I am quoting you.
N. Yea, it sounded like my words. The thing is I had just made Let Love In. That for me was a quite personal and quite painful record to make and I really didn’t want to write anymore songs like that, I didn’t really want to write songs about myself and about my relationships with people and my fucked-up love life. I just wanted to write something that was completely narrative, that wasn’t about me but about something completely different entirely.
A. Every time you say that you had fun recording an album, then the next time you say that the previous record was a painful one to make. Isn’t that, maybe, you get so obsessed about your work that after a while you can only remember it as painful?
N. Let Love In was a good album to record, the songs were really good, we knew it was going to be a good record, but it was a difficult record to write. You know, it was a very difficult period for me on a personal level, and the songs are about that, they’re reflecting that. They’re reflecting on a certain level the falling apart of my marriage. There’s a lot of that, although at the time that was just proceeding. The murder ballads record, instead, was like going to the studio with a pocketful of lyrics… Let’s take, for example, a song like O’Malley’s Bar. You could just write it anywhere, it’s an intellectual exercise, it doesn’t have any emotional input into it, it’s just a story about someone else, and a comic one, in a way. Any time I had ten minutes worth of doing nothing, I just sit down and write another verse for O’Malley’s Bar, blah blah and blah. The writing was a lot like that, so I ended up with a song which had forty verses, I had lyrics I had forgotten about, lyrics I had forgotten I had written for that song et cetera. It was a very enjoyable album to record, lots of people in the studio… I think there are thirty different musicians, there’s even Rowland S. Howard. We’ve been recording especially in Australia, and we kept inviting people in the studio. There is also Tex Perkins (of The Beasts of Bourbon and The Cruel Sea) you know, these ‘luminaries’ of the Australian Rock. Making the choirs was really funny, we used to call it “The Tabernacle Of The Screaming Morons.”
A. People are especially curious about your ‘special guests’. Probably they’re mainly curious about the presence of Kylie Minogue…
N. So they should! What a woman! To me, in my entire career, the kind of ease and the beauty in which the Kylie Minogue collaboration came about was probably the most rewarding thing I have ever done musically. A long time ago, I saw Kylie Minogue on the television singing Better The Devil You Know. I think. It’s a great song, it’s a very strange song, a very weird lyrical content, a very weird song for her to sing. I remember watching the video and in my head I saw it kind of slow down. I could see her singing something slow and sad and I thought what a great thing it would be. So I started writing songs for her. I wrote three or four songs for Kylie over the next years, but I kept throwing them away, thinking that they weren’t the right songs. (Leans toward the microphone like he is making sure that his words come clear on tape) Eventually we made the murder ballads record and it was crystal clear to me that this was the right time to do it. I sat down and wrote the song for her. And even if it’s a murder ballad, it’s really a song about my feelings for Kylie Minogue, my very strong, obsessive feelings for Kylie that I had for a long time. I sent her the song and she was infected by it. I hadn’t ever met her before, and she responded to it in an incredibly open way, like “I love the song I want to do it, I love the words”. And each thing just fell into place without any effort or worry whatsoever, which is like it was really meant to be, you know. Right up to the video. And this was largely due to Kylie’s intelligence, openness and honesty in the way that she worked. It was really like “I just wanna do this, I just think it’ a good song, let’s take the whole thing to its logical conclusions”. Which to me was a video with her lying dead in water and me kneeling over her body and touching her. To me it was an extremely important part of my musical career and in the development of this human, spiritual person.
A. The first thing that everybody notices is that this collaboration is really iconoclast…
N. In a way it was a very pure idea.
The song was written and recorded quite quickly, and the video was made very quickly, too. If you want to sit down and examine the video and all the different ramifications, metaphorically it says a million things.
As much as a video can be, because for me videos are a pretty awful kind of artistic thing. But to me this one was really important in a way, because it was visually symbolic of my feelings towards Kylie. Not that I wanted to kill her, but that I had an unhealthy, or very strong or slightly unhealthy attachment towards her.
A. In a way she impersonates the typical ‘little girl’ of your records and works. By the way, there are less little girls killed, in this album.
N. Are they? I don’t know. I never saw her as a little girl, I always saw her as (smiles, sarcastic) a quite capable woman, actually, a fully functional woman. And I’m sure that’s what she is.
A. You even played live with her at T In The Park, last summer.
N. Yea, that was quite difficult, she wanted me to come up on stage with her and her band and sing the song. For a bit for me it was “Hang on! Just a second! I like you, Kylie, I would do anything to be in your presence, but to get up and sing with your band seems to be taking it too far”. But in fact the band did a good faithful rendition of the song, apart from a… (sarcastic) synthesizer solo in the middle of it. (laughs) Apart from that, it was fine.
A. And what about Polly Jean Harvey? Most people think of her as ‘the new Nick Cave’.
N. this is what they think, eh? With Polly it has been different. When I sang with Polly I already knew her potential. I became friends with Kylie only after making the song. I think that Polly made a great job for the song. Another idea that I had was that I wanted to do more duets and I wanted to sing with Polly. I thought that Henry Lee was a good song for a duet. I also wanted to write songs and not sing many of them, I wanted to have other people to come and sing them. Which didn’t really happen, in the end, because I ended up singing in most of them. Polly responded in the same way of Kylie, and sang very beautifully. The song will be the next single. There will be a video, too, shot by the same director of Where The Wild Roses Grow, but it will look completely different. I recorded more songs for the B-side, with James Johnston, of the Gallon Drunk.
A. His brother, Ian Johnston, has just published your biography (Bad Seed, Little & Brown, £17).
N. Do you read it? Is it good?
A. It’s very detailed. But, although there are interviews with, basically all your associates, you are conspicuous by your absence.
N. I didn’t know Ian. I didn’t talk to him. We are now quite good friends, actually, but I didn’t know him until halfway of his job. It was quite clear that he was trying to write a very ‘straight’ book, and that he could write well. He was interviewing everybody, but I told him that I wouldn’t speak, that I didn’t want to tell my side of the story. I think he did quite a nice ‘white-wash job’ of my post-clinic life. It’s very dirty before the clinic and very nice afterwards, which is a very nice sort of fairy tale. The problem with him is that – and I probably had something to do with that – he became quite emotionally attached to me, halfway through the book, because we became friends. So he was quite protective. Even though there’s quite a lot of shit, bad things that I’ve done, but it’s like he’s saying “that was before, this is now. It doesn’t matter what Nick did in his youth, because now he is OK”. He kept right out of my relationship with Viv (Viviane Carneiro, Nick’s wife; they have a son, Luke, but are now separated).
A. She remains a bit like a legendary figure. It’s true about the ‘white wash’ thing, in the book it all seems nice after the clinic, despite you were very ‘bad’ before like when you kicked a journalist in the groin, and then, all of a sudden…
N. Yea, I just bring back pretty well, you know.
A. Isn’t it weird seeing that your biography is already out?
N. the only thing that is a bit disturbing to me is what’s written about my family. They are innocent in all this sort of things. What happens is, say, that my older brother is portrayed like a hippy, there are just a couple of lines, he looks like a cartoon character. I don’t really cherish my mother sitting at home at night reading that book. But then, she’s read a lot worse about me.
A. A recurring theme is that your being obsessive about your work, almost a workaholic, is because you felt neglected and you want to demonstrate something to your father, to catch his attention.
N. This is fairly true, I think. My father was a big achiever, in the sense that he did aways things, he worked in the theater… He was an English Literature teacher in a small town and then became head of education of Victoria State, he was ‘citizen of the year’ in fucking Wangaratta and so on. He was an intelligent, learned, articulate, flamboyant man. It was a huge sort of battle with him. He was also quite childish, selfish in his way. Like he was great in sitting me down and telling me “Listen, I’ve read this stuff, it’s fantastic.” It was always coming from him, he never wanted to take anything from me. I know that he had this ‘drawer of shame’ which was all his half-written books – not even that, just one or two chapters of various books – and a theater work that he never managed to do. He wrote short stories for magazines, but he never managed to write a novel. I am sure that deep down, somewhere, that was… When I look back at the writing of my novel, that just came out of nowhere, in a way, that was like a really inhuman driving force that was going on when I was writing. Everything was sacrificed. I didn’t need to write it, I wasn’t a struggling author. And once it was done and published, in a way that desire to write another one just left me. It was like “I’ve done it! Here, I wrote one, you see?” I would like to write more, but I don’t have the same feelings towards. I still have an extremely rapid turnout of ideas, I still work extremely hard and obsessively, but, in terms of writing a novel, after the first one, for some reason, I don’t have the same desire to do it again. I’m sure it had to do with my father. I see family life, the passing of the generations kind of evolutionary thing: I think this is the way humanity is evolving. I’ve taken on my father’s role, and I’ve taken it a step further in terms of development. It’s a sort of evolution.
A. Are you still very attached to your mother? Do you still play her your records before they are released?
N. Yea. She’s always been my friend. We were always close. There are periods when I am much closer. You know, it’s very difficult for a junkie living with his mother and I lived with my mother a lot as an active junkie. She was quite aware of all that. It’s difficult to have a close relationship with somebody in that set-up. Now it’s a much more understanding, wholesome relationship. I am much more capable of being a better son, you know.
A. Was she trying to protect you at the time?
N. She tried to do the best that she could. She didn’t really understand a lot of what was going on. She was always on my side. I had a lot of trouble with the police, quite legitimate trouble, I broke the law and I got into trouble, but she was always dead on my side. She did everything I told her to do to help me with the police.
A. Back to your music and your writing, there is the recurring theme of the ‘evil-visionary-murderer-idiot’, like Euchrid in the book, or the guy in O’Malley’s Bar or…
N. The character is completely different than Euchrid. This one originally comes from the ‘McDonald’s murderer’. He is a poor bastard that goes into a place and shoots everybody. I tried to give different dimensions to that particular song. Even though it is a comic song, I tried to show what the guy actually was to everyone else’s eyes, which is a dribbling moron with a gun. What he thought he was this kind of winged angel of death, he keeps telling himself that he looks absolutely masculine and beautiful and virile. I tried also to show that on one hand what he is trying to do is an act of despair, and that act that he does is particular to a country which robs people of their identity. To me this is very much an American tale. It robs people of their identity. Throughout the song he is shooting people but he is trying to tell them “You know how I am”. He knows who everybody else is, but nobody can remember who he is. So he’s just this sort of ‘non-person’, which I think that’s what many people feel. Trying to be something, trying to be someone. But at the end I tried to show also the way I feel about this character: on a hand I pity him, but on the other hand I hate him. I think that what he does is horrible. He is a moral coward he doesn’t have any imagination to do anything better. This is the final act he can do, just trying to give a bit of meaning to his fucking life. In the end, it’s all very well for him to kill all these people but he doesn’t have the guts to kill himself. And in the very end he is counting how many people he has killed, I guess in comparison to how many people someone else ahs killed recently and how he did on this ‘death top’. There’s a lot of mixed feelings about this particular type of killer.
A. The character in Where The Wild Roses Grow says, “All Beauty must die,” while he is killing the girl. Is that our ‘philosophical bit’?
N. I have written that song as a traditional murder ballad. The moral or ethical ground on which that song is built is extremely wobbly. But the thing that really excites me about these old folk murder ballads is that the motive is completely irrelevant. In a murder ballad there are two people and one of them has to die. It is a very fatalistic thing, it’s just a sequence of verses to describe what happens. The importance of that sentence is that it is deliberately a completely throw-away life, a complete piece of bullshit. What kind of a concept! Why “All Beauty must die”? There’s no real depth to that statement. I like the romantic kind of fatalism in these particular songs. I understand that is ‘politically incorrect’ to do. Lots of young kids can go and buy the record and get a wrong notion like it’s alright to kill your girlfriend and throw her in the river. But at the end of the day when it comes to this ‘political correctness’, and me still doing what I want to do, I know what takes second.
A. Don’t tell me you’re worried about politically correctness?
N. I am not worried. I am just a bit conscious about that lately, because there’s been a reasonable amount of criticism about that. What I guess worries me a little bit is that it was a hit, and there’s a lot of kids who don’t know my history, they don’t know anything about me, they think that this is a Kylie Minogue record, basically. If it’s taken out of the context of my other work, I am slightly worried. In that context I am happy to stand by it. I don’t really care what people think about it. I am slightly worried that people think it’s a Kylie Minogue’s song.
A. Who knows, she’s probably a murderer. Anyway, kids are used to gangsta rap…
N. I am talking about young kids, seven or eight years old who have seen me on Top of the Pops. I am not talking about 15 year olds. You know, I was with my son in a toy shop and a kid in a Power Ranger outfit just came and asked me if I was the guy he had seen on TV with Kylie. I said yes, and he asked me my autograph.
A. You see, he was already in a Power Rangers outfit.
N. I agree. I am not concerned. But what if a nine year old gets into his head that that is a cool thing to do? Well, I just read a letter in NME from a woman who is enraged about that song, and it just stuck in my head.
A. People always wrote lots of bullshit like that about you…
N. I know it’s bullshit, but I take her point. (smiles) Not that it stops me from writing or anything.
A. The most famous author of murder ballads is Johnny Cash. “I killed a man in Reno just to watch him die” is an immortal line…
N. Exactly! I don’t know how much politically correct that line is, but fuck what line! Johnny Cash popularized the murder ballads. He did beautiful, he had the voice to do that.. Good stuff, yeah. (ironical) Johnny Cash, what a man!
A. You were supposed to contribute to his most recent album.
N. I actually wrote a song, which is Nobody’s Baby Now, but then I thought, fuck, it’s a good song, I have to sing it.
A. So you ended up killing Kylie, and he killed Kate Moss, for his video. In fact, another common view about you, is that you have a sort of ‘woman angel’, an ideal woman you’re looking for but you can’t achieve peace, because, like in everything else, when you achieve a goal, you suddenly realize that it wasn’t important, or the achievement just makes things ‘dirty’.
N. to me the process of living with a woman is a bit like living your life, anyway. It’s a journey of some sort. These days I try not to look at it like I am working towards a kind of ultimate goal.
A. You read a lot of true crime books…
N. Last one I read was a book about a man called The Beast of Jersey, as you know.
A. As a matter of fact, knowing that you were reading that book during the recordings influenced a bit my vision of the record. You know, the nutter in a very isolated village, and he does horrible things for ages unnoticed.
N. Recently I gave up reading true crime and serial killer books. That was actually my read, with the occasional novel thrown in for a balance. As you well know there’ that place (Ms Camilla’s true crime secret ‘bookshop’, in London. More details in Nick’s record sleeve notes) As I told you in the past, what I really like in those books are the details. The details of despair that I find exciting, in some way. The Beast of Jersey didn’t kill anybody, I guess. He used to spy in houses where a newborn baby was born, shooting pictures of him, then waiting for ten years and abducting him…
A. The record quite aptly ends with a Bob Dylan’s song, Death Is Not The End, that you sing Band Aid style with Kylie, Polly, Anita Lane, Blixa, Shane McGowan.
N. (laughs) Yes, that was the idea. It was very funny to record. There’s our drummer’s (Thomas Wydler) debut as a vocalist. Henry Rollins was supposed to sing that bit, but he couldn’t. Thomas was completely drunk. We had to hold him. He sounds like Peter Lowry… Anyway, it’s a Bob Dylan song. A little optimistic… no, pessimistic, footnote to the record. In this song there was always a quite disturbing thing to me, even if I am sure he didn’t intend it this way. All the verses are a description of what hell life is, but always remembers that death is not the end. It seems to me it says that life is shit now and then continues to be shit afterwards. (laughs) It is something like it was badly written, I don’t know, but that is the disturbing impression I always had.
A. It’s time to finish. Your biography reveals that you are an amazing poker player. Do you feel you are a gambler? Metaphorically speaking, of course.
N. It was a long time ago, you know, in Berlin. The Risiko (bar whose bartender was Blixa) had this backroom. An enormous amount of drugs around, speed and so on… We used to have endless games of poker, sometimes for days. Now I don’t play anymore. No, I am not a gambler. I went to casinos, too. I understand that for some people it is an addition, like others have alcohol. But, no, I am not a gambler.
By Andrea Cangioli, Jan. 1996
“Killer Instinct” interview by Andrea Cangioli
Publication: NICK CAVE – THE STORY (view product info)
Scans & text transcript by Rebecca (from her personal collection)
Graphics, layout & text edits by Morgan Wolfe