Over a four-decade career, Nick Cave has taken on a lot of roles besides the frontman of The Bad Seeds. He’s scored films and plays, written novels and screenplays, and taken on film roles. He’s also had a variety of bands, from The Birthday Party in the early ’70s and ’80s to his dirty-blues alter ego Grinderman, a side project with his Bad Seeds partner Warren Ellis. (Not to be confused with the other famous Warren Ellis, the comics writer behind Transmetropolitan.) After alternating Grinderman and Bad Seeds albums, Cave went to southern France with The Bad Seeds to record their first album since 2008: the lyrical, understated Push The Sky Away, on which he channels Leonard Cohen’s baritone-tinged introspection. The A.V. Club recently sat down with Cave to talk about the creation of that album, the apocalyptic nature of text-speak, and why writing novels is easier than writing songs.
The A.V. Club: When you sat down to record this album, how much had you already written? How much did the surroundings play a part in its creation?
Nick Cave: It was a really beautiful place to record. It’s actually a library for the biggest classical vinyl collection in France, or something like that. That’s why it exists. But they built a studio in it as well. It had a very resonate sort of atmosphere. So I’m sure that had something to do with it, because personally, I hate studios, and as soon as I’m in them, I’m eager to get out of them. There’s just too much music or something. Anyway, this was a really beautiful place to be, so I think that perhaps helped for a more considered record.
AVC: How did you find the place?
NC: Our producer found it through, I think, Radiohead’s producer, who mentioned that there was this place. No international band had recorded there yet; it was just a place where French bands recorded sometimes. There were music seminars and stuff like that.
AVC: How early in the process did you come up with the title Push The Sky Away?
NC: I think while we were making the record. No, maybe before the record. It was a song initially. In fact, it was quite a few songs before it settled into the one that’s there. I think it just struck me that it was the impossibility of the action. The need to do something, but it can’t be achieved at the same time. It’s quite a weird title for me, because I don’t normally do—there’s a preachiness to the title. I’m not in the business of telling people what to do. I’m much more in the business of describing things, situations and stuff like that and leaving them out there, and you can make up your minds about them. This has a certain anthemic sort of title, which is strange for me. It’s obscure enough to let it through.
AVC: What drew you to use text-speak for the title of “We No Who U R”? It’s in stark contrast to the poetic lyrics.
NC: It just felt—there’s just something apocalyptic about the song, and to me, there’s something apocalyptic about text-speak as well. It’s the kind of sub-ruination of our language. It feels like the disassembling of our language, or something like that.
AVC: How about the order of the songs? Did you always know they were going to go in that order on the album?
NC: Yeah, they had an order early on. We have a board in the studio where the songs are structured with the things we need to do with each song. It settled into an order very early on, and we didn’t deviate from it in the end. The ordering of the songs can be a complete bitch, but it’s really important to us. Things like titles, the kind of things you’re sort of stuck with after the real effort’s been made to make the record. This can be a real nightmare, because it’s very difficult to find the order of the songs. It’s very difficult to find the right title, because there’s always either too much weight to the title or too little, and it’s not right. It can be a really difficult thing to do, and often you settle on titles that you’re not particularly happy with, because there’s just nothing better. But the title and the ordering of this record came about very early in the process. My wife had an issue with that title, Push The Sky Away, because she felt it was preachy, but she came around in the end.
AVC: What made her change her mind?
NC: I don’t know. I think the photograph [for the album cover]. We took that photograph, and she really loved it. I think because it shows her unique relationship with the camera. She does stuff with the camera that’s very natural. It’s very much the way she photographs. It has all these sort of implications. Some people, myself in particular, have an adversarial relationship with the camera, and it sprouts up in every photograph. It’s absolute fuckin’ bullshit, and I can’t bear to look at them. I can’t bear to be photographed. And it looks like that. But Susie just has this relationship with the camera that’s completely different, very natural. Anyway, she came around to the title. It’s important to me that Susie, in particular, is supportive with what I’m doing at any particular time. She’s not always. It creates a kind of tension around a particular project.
AVC: When you write something, do you bring it to her?
NC: No. Well, not until after it’s done. Then it’s nerve-wracking. I play the record. She might have heard me playing stuff around the house. And then I get a very honest, direct response about it. It’s not that I respect her views on music any more than anybody else’s; it’s that so much of it’s about her. There’s so much of her within the songs that it’s important for me that she feels represented.
AVC: “Finishing Jubilee Street” is an interesting riff on reprises. Did you know you were going to put yourself inside it when you started writing the original “Jubilee Street”?
NC: Yeah. The big problem with songwriting for me is starting a new song. It’s the thing where all the anguish exists, not in the writing of the song, but the starting of the new song. What do I write about? I never know. I never have a fuckin’ clue. I never feel the least bit inspired around the process at all. So what I need is something to hook an idea onto, and it struck me, “If I can just write another song about having written another song, that’s enough to kickstart the song.” I wrote the line, “I just finished writing ‘Jubilee Street’” when I had just finished writing “Jubilee Street.” I lie down and then I have a dream, and suddenly a song presents itself. That was really the reason for that. But in the end, there’s a kind of archness about the whole thing, because you’re kind of mythologizing a song before it’s even being heard by anybody. I guess in some way, that’s a reflection of the world, today anyway, that things are thrust up into the stratosphere without any real purpose, or without deserving to be.
AVC: You start with the melody of “Jubilee Street,” as a traditional reprise would do, and then descend into a completely different song with the “see that girl” hook. When was that added?
NC: Actually, that was done in a studio. It didn’t have the hook, so it was just this linear thing. I had that little melody, and then I just played it on top of it when we were sitting recording it. I went, “Dah dah dah,” and that kicks it up into a different key. There’s some kind of lift suddenly, and it’s like, “Oh, that’s nice.” So we just sort of put some other voices onto it. What’s nice about that is that not much is made out of it. It’s just a little hook that comes in, and we don’t stack hundreds of vocals on it. It’s like a little thought or something. We actually did put a lot of vocals on that, and we took them all off, because it became too self-conscious. We just liked the way it crept in and out.
AVC: Did you do that with other songs?
NC: Yeah, we did. We had this little choir come in from the local school, these French kids that sang some of the stuff. That was great. Then we were thinking, “All right, these things that push the sky away, and all of this sort of stuff that we could kind of add a whole lot of shit to.” We did do that, to a certain extent, but we took it off. It just felt contrived. It didn’t feel real. There’s something about this record that some listeners respond to. Some don’t, but some listeners respond to it. There’s a sense of discovery for the listener about this record. You play it a few times, and you start to find things in the record. Those things aren’t being shoved down their throat, like with most records. There’s the hook and a sense of audience participation within this record, in the same way as there’s a sense of discovery in the actual recording. When we record stuff, we don’t know what the outcome of the song is. I mean, “Higgs Boson Blues” was only ever recorded one time. We just sat there, and I sang over this sort of thing, and the crescendos—it’s edited—but the crescendos and stuff like that just happened. I don’t even know when they’re going to happen. It’s only recorded one time, and that’s it. “Finishing Jubilee Street” is the same. A lot of them are like that.
AVC: Did you write it all in one sitting?
NC: No. The way me and Warren wrote quite a number of those songs was, he would send the loop, the arrhythmic thing, to me from Paris. Then I would play it on my computer, which is linked up to some speakers in my office, so I can play it loud. Then I would sit down at the acoustic piano in the corner of the room and put my iPhone there and sing into the iPhone, play the piano with the loop going on in the background in the room, play some chords over it and sing some stuff, and then email back to Warren. Warren would email back, “It’s a classic,” or something like that. But that’s as much preparation is done on the song. We forget about the song after that, and then go into the studio and say, “Remember that thing I sent you?” We’d bring it up, show it to the band, and then play it and record it. And that’s the end of it. These songs feel to me like they can’t be handled too much. The more we understand about them, the more takes we do, the more we manipulate them, and they start to lose something. With this record, it’s very much one take and it’s done.
AVC: Warren Ellis seems to be the connection between your recent music work, with the film scores, theater projects, and Grinderman. What’s your collaboration with him like?
NC: He worked with us on Let Love In, he tells me. I can’t remember that. I think I was pretty out of it, and he was there, but I don’t really remember. For me, he joined the band for the Murder Ballads record. I saw The Dirty Three play, and I went and said, “We can’t play a fuckin’ violin on our record.” We were recording down the road in Melbourne, so he came into the studio. But the moment he came in, there was a musical relationship that started up. I remember on the second day or something like that, I was playing “Henry Lee” on the piano, and he came over and said, “Why don’t you shift that to a B minor?” or something like that. Came over and said a direct thing about songwriting to me, which no one had said in years to me. So I go, “Oh, that’s nice.” There was suddenly an understanding that there was a partnership here.
Over the years, that developed into a very deep friendship, and a very close collaborative partnership on all the music we work on—whether it’s soundtracks, Grinderman, Bad Seeds—to the point where we just sit down and write songs together and stuff. I mean, outside of the studio. That’s something I’ve never done with anybody—sit and discuss a song and the process of writing the song with another member. I’ve collaborated on songs with Mick [Harvey], Blixa [Bargeld] and Thomas [Wydler], and stuff like that, but that just comes about in the studio, where you’re sitting down together. Someone starts something up, and you start something up, and no one really knows who started what, so it’s a sort of co-write. Or Mick might add a chord or a thing to a piece that’s already there, or something like that. So it ends up as a collaboration in that way. But it’s never ever been a process of sitting down together. It’s a very different thing. So he’s really important.
AVC: Do you approach film scoring differently from writing a song for an album?
NC: When I think about it, both me and Warren are aware of the value of our relationship, but we’re also aware that it’s a collaboration. I think we understand that collaborations only exist for a certain amount of time. That’s the nature of a collaboration. They don’t just go on and on and on. They peak, and then they fall apart. I think there are things you can do to prevent that from happening, and that’s working on different things, working separately, constantly changing what you’re doing together. The soundtracks me and Warren are doing are completely different from one another, the process. Something like Lawless, he basically did, and there was very little keyboard on it. In terms of the actual score, it’s basically Warren sitting around doing stuff. The Proposition was much more both of us working. [The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford] was a different thing as well. The process was very different, and changed our relationship to the music. This is an essential way of keeping the whole thing alive. Warren is an amazing collaborator, because he’s just an ideas guy, and it doesn’t matter what’s going on with him, what kind of situation he’s in—when it comes down to sitting down and talking about something or doing something, he’s incredible.
AVC: Do you find that when you’re writing for a film you write in a different way, because your music is often underneath dialogue?
NC: Yeah. We did West Of Memphis. That was just an absolute joy to do, because it’s not melodically, I mean, it’s pure atmosphere the whole time. You don’t want melodies and shit coming in where people are talking to each other or being interviewed. You have something that sits underneath that, creates a subtext or tension or something like that. That stuff is great for us to do. Right now, we want to concentrate more on The Bad Seeds. It might be a little premature to say this, but I think we’re eager to get back into the studio and make another record. With some records, it feels like it’s all over. You make a record, and it just doesn’t allow you to go anywhere else. In retrospect, it feels like we make a record like it needs to be. I have to recollect a kind of seismic shift in the band, or something like that. For example, Nocturama opened everything up. For me, it’s a really important record. Whereas The Lyre Of Orpheus just shut everything down. All the doors slammed shut on that record for me. That doesn’t mean that one record is good or bad, it just means that the record you’ve made isn’t really speaking to the next record, or it’s not speaking about possibilities. And this new record we’ve done, does. There’s all sorts of places this can go. It’s an important record for us in the same way Nocturama was, even though everyone fuckin’ hated it.
AVC: You once said songwriting was harder for you than writing a novel. How so?
NC: A novel is difficult to get your shit together to start it up. When someone says “Write a novel,” you’re kind of like, “It’s a big thing.” But actually, once you start it up, I think, it’s relatively easy. You just have to sit down and do it. There’s an anxiety around writing songs that I have. I’ve always found the process really difficult, and I don’t know why. It’s because they’re really coming out of—they’re sort of dragged out of you. It’s very much an internal thing. It’s very much connected to your soul. I mean, you can use words like that quite freely around the process of songwriting. Whereas novel-writing, for me, it feels much more like an intellectual exercise. That’s why music is, in its way, a superior creative form than the other ones. It’s much more mysterious.
I don’t really understand the process after all those years, even though I’ve written 250 songs, or something like that. And I’ve thought a lot about the creative process. There’s an element to songwriting that I can’t explain, that comes from somewhere else. I can’t explain that dividing line between nothing and something that happens within a song, where you have absolutely nothing, and then suddenly you have something. It’s like the origin of the universe.