A household name in households where black clothing edges out pastels, Nick Cave began his musical career as leader of The Birthday Party, which emerged from Melbourne's punk scene, then traveled to London and Berlin before disbanding in the heat and smoke of its own creation. Shortly after his old band dissolved, Cave formed The Bad Seeds, bringing with him a never-flagging interest in God, romantic obsession, and people who meet violent ends in the pursuit of both.
Since the late '80s–when, however coincidentally, he kicked a drug habit–Cave has refined his craft, taking his music through unexpected turns. A minor hit in the U.S. but a smash elsewhere, thanks in part to a duet with Kylie Minogue, the 1996 album Murder Ballads put a new twist on an old form. The following year, Cave returned with his most spiritual-minded offering yet, The Boatman's Call. After a short break from recording, Cave has been busy. He's released four albums since 2001: No More Shall We Part, Nocturama, and the new double set Abattoir Blues and The Lyre Of Orpheus. Recently, at the end of a long day, Cave spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about inspiration, his attempts to dismantle his own myth, and how he turns his interests into song.
The Onion: You didn't put out a Bad Seeds record between 1997 and 2001, and now this is your third album in three years, and it's a double. Is it safe to say that inspiration isn't a problem these days?
Nick Cave: I don't bother with inspiration. That's why I write a lot. I don't rely on inspiration. It's unreliable. I just get up in the morning and go to work. Inspiration has very little to do with it.
O: You seem to be writing more these days, though. Were you distracted by other projects?
NC: Oh, no. I think after Boatman's Call, I kind of fell into a state of mind that it took me a little while to get out of, really. After that record wasn't the best period of my life.
O: Why a double album now?
NC: Just to show that I could. I guess there's some sort of perverse interest in subverting the notion that because you're in your mid-40s, things have to slow down and get worse. I don't necessarily see that it has to be that way. I mean, there are a lot of reasons why there's a double album, actually. I also just had a lot of songs, and we recorded them all, and no one had the heart to get rid of 10 of them. So we just made two albums.
O: How much did the songs change when you brought them to The Bad Seeds?
NC: A number of these songs were written in this sort of songwriting thing with three other members of The Bad Seeds: Warren Ellis, Jim Sclavunos, and Martyn Casey. We went to a tiny little studio in Paris and sat there for five days and just played anything. I went in, deliberately, without any words; it was an attempt to write songs from the ground up, as a band. That worked really well. We came up with 10 CDs' worth of material, and I used some of that to write some of the songs—probably some of the key songs, actually—on these records.
O: Overall, this is a joyful double album, although as usual, it's rooted in a lot of difficulty. At one point, you express the sentiment that beauty will save the world. How difficult is it to sustain that feeling on a day-to-day basis?
NC: I think you need to be vigilant. I'm a kind of hard-wired pessimist. I can't help but see the world in a certain kind of way. For my own sanity, I find it necessary to seek out beauty in the world, and I do that through music, and through literature and nature, and in the same ways that everybody else does, I suppose. That seems to be important to me.
O: You talked about keeping to a strict work schedule. How does that schedule differ from how you wrote songs 20 years ago?
NC: I've always worked really hard, I've always worked at a desk, and I've always put in long hours, despite the circumstances of my life. I just felt, six years ago, or whenever it was that I actually started working away from the house—I was living with people. I had a wife and kids, and I didn't feel the need to impose the creative process on them. It's messy and unsightly. When I go to the bathroom, I tend to close the door. I see those as similar. [Laughs.] I've always worked really hard. I wrote a novel, and you don't do that on a lark. You have to fuckin' sit down at the typewriter day after day just to get it done, just to get the words down. That I did nothing but lie around and take drugs is just a misconception. It's a misconception by people who don't really understand the nature of drug-taking. I think there's a general idea that if you take drugs, your life must be out of control, and you're kind of going nowhere. I don't see this as being true at all. Anyway, there you go.
O: You work on an almost operatic scale of big emotions, grand themes, and dramatic narratives, so you run the risk of going over the top. Do you have any particular checks to let yourself know if you've gone too far?
NC: Obviously not. [Laughs.] I don't think that, these days, that occurs as much as it perhaps did before. I think that has something to do with an effort on my part to dismantle the myth of Nick Cave, and to somehow separate myself from the songs themselves, so that you can listen to one of my songs and not have to see it through a preconceived notion of the kind of person I'm supposed to be. That seemed important to me for the survival of the songs themselves, and I guess at some point years ago, that started to worry me, and I started to do something about it. It felt like some songs needed to be propped up by the persona. At the time, I felt that. I'm not so sure that that's true now. It seemed important to me to get away from that.
O: When your fans meet you, what is most surprising about the experience?
NC: To them? I have no idea.
O: How about for you? What's surprising about the fans you meet?
NC: I guess the range. The age, the shape, the color. I don't know. There seems to be a real kind of variety. When I perform onstage, I'm actually kind of nearsighted, so I don't have any real, true understanding of what the audience is like. I'm often surprised at the kinds of people who come up to me and say, "Hey, I like what you do." It's actually kind of nice.
O: [Bad Seeds member] Mick Harvey once said that for you, the shift from the '80s to the '90s marked a shift from an Old Testament Nick Cave to a New Testament Nick Cave. Is that a fair assessment?
NC: I think he stole that quote from me. [Laughs.]
O: Well, if it's from you, then it's probably a fair assessment.
NC: Well, I mean, it's a pat one. But what's the question?
O: I guess the bigger question is, why do you think that shift occurred?
NC: I was reading The Bible a lot through my 20s, mostly the Old Testament, just because I was knocked out by the language and the stories. I felt that the God being talked about there, who was this insane, vindictive patriarch—it was kind of thrilling, and titillated something in me at the time. It seemed to me that the world deserves a God like that. Then I started reading the New Testament, and it spoke in a totally different way to me. It was much more mysterious, incredibly beautiful, and I think it turned my way of thinking around in some way. It struck a much more personal note.
O: How surprised were you when Murder Ballads became your biggest-selling album?
NC: Oh, very surprised. I just figured that Murder Ballads was destined to fail. In fact, it was made with the lightness of touch that things are made with when you know that no one's going to buy them so it didn't really matter. We were just in there having a good time. It just, I don't know, took off.
O: Can you explain why?
NC: Because Kylie Minogue was on it. [Laughs.]
O: Is it as simple as that?
NC: Absolutely, yeah.
O: Not some grand pronouncement on why the murder-ballad form has lasted through the centuries—just "It's Kylie"?
NC: I think it was to do with Kylie, and I think a lot of people bought that record and thought, "What the fuck is this?" That obviously delighted me to no end.
O: When you did Lollapalooza in 1994, how well did you get along with the other acts?
NC: Very well. Well, I got along with Flaming Lips, L7, and George Clinton and his band. And Will Oldham. I may well have left somebody out. If it wasn't for those people, I think we all would have blown our brains out. They made the whole thing enjoyable, made a really fucking horrible situation kind of enjoyable.
O: Did they put you on in the afternoon?
NC: Yes, 2 o'clock.
O: That seems like the wrong time to see you.
NC: We were basically playing to empty stadiums. We were just on the wrong bill at the wrong time. Something like that. People decided it was a good time to go and buy a burrito. I mean, Green Day were on almost first, 11 o'clock or something like that. Between the time they were booked and the time they did the tour, they'd become monstrous. There were thousands of people crushed up to the front to watch Green Day. Then they kind of hung around for L7, and then it's like, "Oh, fuck, here comes Nick Cave, let's go and get a burrito." And it was sort of 53 dates of that. But I think we did some really good shows because of that. They were really extreme and… I don't know. George Clinton really liked us. That was a good thing.