Song of the day (Australia) – 149: The Birthday Party
No explanation required here, I hope.
The interview that follows the video is lifted from Careless Talk Costs Lives #6 – which came out in January 2003 (split cover with Erase Errata because we figured Nick to be a little too well-known to command the cover just by himself). I think the order of it was actually different when it was printed, but I sure as fuck am not going to start scanning in issues of CTCL just for this blog. The interview in Hove was actually the first time Nick and I met (notwithstanding the occasional brushes with microphone stands back in the early Eighties).
We have met since, on several occasions.
(And my Rowland S. Howard tribute is over here.)
Can someone PLEASE send me the new Grinderman now?
So, a couple of weeks before the wedding, the vicar came by our house and I made him a variation on Chicken Malaysia and a crumble afterwards, of course – no custard, because if there’s one thing the Reverend Jonathan Greener can’t abide it’s custard – and we sat around and discussed the music we wanted to play during the ceremony. We were unsure about one song, whether or not it would be considered offensive, so we figured it best to play it to him, even though we hadn’t yet found a singer with a voice low enough to infuse the opening lines, “I don’t believe in an interventionist God but darling, I know that you do” with the necessary gravitas. We wondered if it’d be suitable to play the CD in the church, whether, indeed, it would be possible to play a CD in a building so designed for live music without losing most of the subtleties and cadences of expression.
As the final few chords of “Into My Arms” echoed away, the vicar chose his words with care. “Well, I don’t find it offensive – although there are some in my regular congregation who might,” he said, “and I should always be considerate of their feelings. I think that, if you can’t find someone who’s able to sing it, we shouldn’t include it because it’s a very intimate song, isn’t it, and I don’t think a CD would work.”
He was right. We dropped the song.
“It’s a good one for a funeral,” Nick Cave laughs. “I’m always ending up at sitting at someone’s funeral with that…”
I was watching your new video again this morning. I really like the one for “Babe, I’m On Fire” with yourself and the Bad Seeds dressed up as different characters from the song – the drunk, the punk, the brave Buddhist monk, the fucked-up Rastafarian, the dribbling libertarian, the sweet little Goth with the ears of cloth… it’s really funny.
“Yeah, I enjoyed doing that.”
I can imagine. What gave you the idea to do it like that?
“Oh, the video was an afterthought. We were asked to do some kind of DVD thing for the record, which we’re totally fucking sick of doing, you know, you can’t do a record without some kind of attachment to it… and they wanted to do the usual kind of ‘How the record was made’, or interviews in the studio, which is so tedious. So we decided to do this long, absolutely useless video for that particular song [it lasts close on 15 minutes], something they could never use. We were given 20 characters each to dress up as, and we’d go in to wardrobe, and they’d say, ‘Now you’re the deranged country vicar’, so you’d get dressed up, and see Conway coming up the hallway dressed as grandma, or something. We had no idea how it was going to turn out.”
Nick Cave’s studio is situated right by the sea-front in Hove and, no, I’m not going to tell you the exact road so stop pestering me, the man has a right to privacy like anyone else. Inside it’s clean, cold (mostly because of the weather and a busted heater), focussed – sterile, even. There are no posters on the walls, no empty cigarette packs littering the floors, no old pizza boxes or mementos or gold discs or stains or anything to distract the artist from the room’s primary purpose: a place of work, a place to do work within. There’s a piano along one side, where Cave composes his songs, an organ at right angles to it. The third wall contains the couch upon which I’m now seated, sipping at a cup of tea (nice china!) and sucking on a Strepsil. A table with computer and computer files fronts the fourth, alongside a variety of boxes and containers. Nick welcomes me in, shoves the kettle on: he’s not warm, but he isn’t cold either. I’ve waited nine, 10 years to interview him. While at Melody Maker we would ask routinely, every new album, always refused, can’t blame him. It’s been over 22 years since I first Nick’s guttural yowl in Melbourne’s Birthday Party screaming out “The Friend Catcher”. I still have no urge to devalue the myth.
“Fancy meeting God,” we’d yell to each other sarcastically as we tore another piece from his nicotine-stained suit down the front of Birthday Party shows in London. We knew this shit was funny, and worth venerating.
It occurs to me I still have no idea whether Cave is his real name or not, or if he ever shagged Kylie. I never asked.
My wife and I had an argument over the other video. She wanted to know why it’s so obscene. She expected more from Nick Cave.
“Um, the er…?”
I’m talking about the one for “Bring It On”, with all the gyrating dancers.
“Was it obscene?”
She thinks it is. It’s not necessarily my view.
“Basically, er… Basically I was just… I think this question was asked in the… er… did you get some kind of…?”
Press kit? No, I didn’t. We aren’t your conventional press. We don’t do press kits.
“Well, it was… the director asked, ‘What kind of video do you want to make for this new thing?’ I said, ‘What kind of videos do MTV show these days?’ He said, ‘It’s usually a lot of black girls shaking their arses at the camera’. And I said, ‘Well, let’s do that then’.”
The discussion featured more around whether I thought the video was sexy or not. She most certainly didn’t.
Well, she is my wife, and we did get married two months ago, so…
“I think it was pushed a little bit beyond that. We went through a period of doing videos that were absolutely useless. We’d spend money on them. They’d never get played anywhere. They might have been minor works of art, or something like that, but there was no point making them. It’s totally un-enjoyable doing it, getting up and miming to a song for an entire day. So this was an attempt to get MTV to play one of our songs, but at the same time, there’s an irony to it. Maybe that didn’t come across too well. We didn’t set out to make the sexiest video ever.”
Well, all of you are in it. No disrespect, but…
“I apologise to her. I’ll never do it again. We were going to make a follow up and get loads of old bag ladies of the street doing the same thing, pay them the minimum wage and sue MTV for not showing it on account of ageism.”
So, one day in about ’82 or ’81, I get a call from my mate Geoff The Postman and he’s like, “You’re in Sounds, you’re in *Sounds*, there’s a Birthday Party interview and half of it’s about you and – ”, and I’m like, “WHAT?” It transpires that he’s right (sort of), cos a few weeks ago there had been a Birthday Party show at the Africa Centre or some place, no stage (as ever), ferocious slam-dancing – Birthday Party fans invented slam-dancing way before Black Flag ever got puritanical on the Yanks’ asses – and someone pushed Nick meanly as his back was turned, and he went sprawling arse-over-tit over a monitor, got up, face like thunder, grabbed a microphone stand and…
Thing was, I didn’t notice. I was too busy fucking dancing down the front, but every other fan did and had magically melted away from view… so Nick turns round and there’s just innocent me there (first sang on a record at the start of the live Birthday Party/Lydia Lunch split 12-inch, saw the Cocteau Twins’ debut London performance cos they were fellow Birthday Party freaks like us, stopped going to Birthday Party shows when all the goddamn (spit) music press-led Goths began showing up and laughing at my screen-printer dungarees)… so he grabs the microphone stand and goes fucking “WHACK!” straight across my face, and over I go and over he goes and a couple of kids rush to pull me back…
A week later, it’s all over the fucking national music press.
I don’t tell Nick any of this.
I’m halfway scared he may still think it was me who tripped him.
I never usually come to interviews with any questions…
“That’s cos you’re old school, right? 75 per cent of the article is going to be how you got here and the coffee you had on the way.”
Forget about getting here, 75 per cent of the article will be about what I did last night – watched Nick Cave videos. No, the one question I ask people is, “What is your motivation? Why?”
“Why? I guess, for me, why I do this is cos I find it quite difficult to cope without it and I’m not greatly impressed without it. I can be alone and I can be in my imagination and create an alternate reality that’s not like it is out there.”
What was your motivation when you started?
“Probably much the same as everyone: the booze and the broads.”
You didn’t think of it as a career option at that point?
“It was the secondary interest. I was an art student, which I took seriously. I had a band on the side. I failed art in the second year and then punk happened and the band was playing music that was vaguely in that area…”
That sound is back in fashion now. I keep hearing new bands and I think, “This sounds like something I heard 23 years ago…”
“I’m not a journalist. I don’t have to listen to it. I have a son that’s 11 and he drags that kind of stuff into the house. It all sounds very familiar.”
What made you decide to be the front man?
“Basically because we were 15 when we started this band and everyone played an instrument, and they needed someone to sing. No one else would do it.”
Does your motivation change over the years?
“I was very uncomfortable at school with myself and not very popular. The band was just the way in, in that sense. As soon as I started getting gigs things changed. But obviously it’s not for those reasons now. For me it starts in here [indicates the room around us]. It’s about an absolute need to do that. When I don’t do this, I don’t function properly, unless I’m connecting with some other world then I just don’t function out there [indicates the street outside]. The live situation is something where I take the songs we’ve recorded in the studio – which we do a lot quicker now – and turn them into what they’re meant to be, seeing which ones survive. Live and being in the studio are completely different things. The recording situation is more meditative, and live, everything accelerates.”
Do you enjoy being in the studio?
“I do. For a short period of time.”
Presumably the reason it’s for a short period of time is because you’ve worked with the same musicians for some time now. (2003 will be the 20th anniversary of the Bad Seeds.)
“Yes it is. We’ve become better at playing together and more ruthless in our technique – we don’t allow overdubs. What you hear is pretty much the live take of the songs. Because we don’t rehearse, we don’t really have a full understanding of the potential of the songs. Some of the songs are at their most beautiful because of that, because there is a sense of discovery about what we’re doing. Other songs, especially the louder songs, come into their own live. They just become these incredible things.”
When you go to record a new album, how do the ideas gestate? For example, with the “Murder Ballads”, you clearly had an idea in mind. Does it always happen like that?
“It depends on the records. The last three records were all written before we went into the studio. The ‘Murder Ballads’ was largely written in the studio. I had books of traditional folk lyrics lying all around, loads of lyrical ideas. The music was very fast. That record has a great playful feel. Some of the other ones, there was very little when I went into the studio.”
In conversation with Will Oldham the other day, he implied Nick Cave is commercially driven – by surrounding himself with the same musicians (the Bad Seeds haven’t changed line-up for five years), he isn’t taking any risks with his music, becomes formulaic, and is able to build on his audience with each new record. I started to argue back, but then it occurred to me the crucial difference between these two most personal of artists is that Nick Cave, at least partly, makes records for his fans whereas the former Palace singer makes records only for himself. I would deny that Cave is formulaic – at least not in the dull sense – and argue that the idea of taking “risks” with music is a nebulous one at best.
Take his new album, “Nocturama”. It’s another series of devotional love songs, tinged with black humour here and there (“Dead Man In My Bed), lifted by refrains you’ll want to hum in your lust hours, and finished off with the magnificent live studio outing “Babe, I’m On Fire” – all the passion and anger and devilry of old, topped with a lascivious pounding vocal that recalls such gems as “The Mercy Seat”. Nick is 45? Whoa! The band are *stunning*, operating at the peak of their form, clearly able to knock off songs like this any day of the week… but does this devalue the art-form, that musicians are able to create so easily such sublime moments?
Of course fucking not. Look to classic runs of singles from artists like Ramones, Pet Shop Boys, Blondie… It’s simply a whole other game, Will. The two artists have different motivations, value systems and approaches. Is one more authentic than the other cos he always seeks to radically change his work: what of honing your craft, year after year, whittling down the same picture from the same damn stick? Should authenticity even matter?
So this isn’t his best record ever. It’s not malicious enough. It doesn’t come close to the brilliantly cruel and spiteful dissemination of American small town values on “God Is In The House” (to name but one) on 2001’s “No More Shall We Part” – or 1990’s epic album, Gabriel Garcia Marquez-influenced, “The Good Son”. But fuck. Nick’s shittiest is still way better than most people’s best. And this trips my trigger just fine.
I’m just a simple hack, a fan, a dotard, a lime lizard with a tongue like silver and brass. Don’t ask me.
Was it like a massive leap from The Birthday Party to making solo records?
“Well, I had no intention of doing that. We broke up and that was it as far as music went for me. I went back to Melbourne and did nothing for a year. Mick [Harvey] dug me up and suggested I start another band. I was writing lyrics, but I had no idea of what kind of music I wanted to make. That first record is the sound of a band having no idea what they wanted to do.”
You’re speaking to someone who is trying to immigrate to Australia, particularly Melbourne. What made you want to go the other way?
“Every Australian wants to get out of Australia. Everyone in Australia is led to believe that the rest of the world is a much better place. We live our lives thinking that England and America are better than Australia. It is ingrained in the national psyche that we are inferior. Everyone wants to at least see what the rest of the world is like, and we had the opportunity to come over here. Everything had fallen apart for most of us in Australia. The band had been playing to the same 200 people for four years. We came to England, and it was such a shock to actually see what it was like here. I couldn’t believe it on every possible level – that’s usually what happens with Australians.”
So what made you stick here?
“There isn’t any reason or rationale over the years about what I did. You just were somewhere and went along with it. You moved towards places that you feel happiest, and we were incredibly miserable in London, our circumstances were dire. We had no money whatsoever. Suddenly there weren’t people who’d lend you money and we were living in squats and not getting any work.”
I remember seeing you at the Rock Garden in front of eight people…
I remember seeing Nick Cave play in front of eight people. He’d lean out right over the audience, a mutant bastard Antipodean play-acting Iggy Pop – not that any of us were aware of it at the time – and we’d reach up our arms as if to catch him and pull them away right at the last second. It was a game, a vicious, disturbing, brutally ALIVE game, one tempered by un-sex and no-mates and all that other crap stuff that happens when you’re 19, 20 and not one of the townies.
I prefer it when the storyteller immerses himself so deeply within the tale he is recounting that fact becomes indistinguishable from friction, reality and fantasy blur into one. Nick Cave’s songs are inhabited by artifice and surreal creatures – God, “a guy with plastic antlers”, the apostles, dead wives – yet they never cease being believable. Cave sings with such obvious relish, and such an instinctive grasp of when to testify and when to shut the fuck up, that all characters burst into sudden, intoxicating life. Or death, as it may take them.
That’s my first point. Cave is a master of his art: he makes the imagined real.
What is it about the outside world that makes you want to stay in your studio?
“I find it increasingly difficult to find anything authentic out there. The two main areas of my life are my work and my family life. I’ve always been able to work hard, sit down at the piano and play, but the rest of my life was not… to and fro… and then I got married, and that shut down that side of my life. I was very pleased about and I feel protected by that. If I don’t feel protected by that, then I just feel disgusted and infuriated. Any sort of salvation for me comes through work, having something that I’m excited by and something to put my energies into – I feel physically changed by that. When I don’t have that, I feel kind of useless and half human. By separating myself and isolating myself, that is my way of connecting with the world and doing it some kind of service.”
Do you still get as excited about writing new songs as you used to?
“Yes, I do. Definitely. I get less impressed, possibly, by what I do, because I’ve always had a tendency to think the thing that I’m working on is the greatest thing I’ve ever done. But once you go through the recording process and you get the CD in your hand and put it on… it’s always disappointing. Songwriting is just something I do all the time, and that can be intensely frustrating and also very exciting when something actually happens, but that excitement is quite short. Just as soon as you’ve finished a song that can take a day or a week, you’ve got to start writing another one. But if I have a bigger project like a prose or a film script then I still get that thing where I can’t sleep and I’m always thinking about it. It’s exciting. I feel like somebody. I love it.”
Do you not feel validated unless you’ve got your art?
“I’d say that’s true. Outside of my area of expertise I feel very mediocre.”
I wish more people would feel like that. How do you write a song? Do you write them on the piano or organ?
“I just write them there [gestures towards the piano], yeah. Or I get a title and then a few lines, then a couple of chords, it’s not that hard to do actually. What I find exhausting about the process is that you’re always thrown back. It’s not like when you’re telling a story or writing a novel and you can run with it. You’re constantly back to square one and you have to start again. I’m at the start of writing the next record and I’ve got two or three songs for it, but I’m still at that place of working out what it’s all about. You want to feel like you move on and that your ideas progress, and that your relationship with the world progresses in some way. And often it doesn’t feel like that. You feel like years have gone past and you’re still in exactly the same place. I guess the records are a reminder that you are. I don’t feel much change. I feel like I still have the same sensibilities, the same responses to the world that I had when I was 19. I may not be as young or have the same kind of energy or the same kind of ‘fuck you!’ attitude as I had back then, but those ideas are kind of branded in you very early on, or at least in me.”
Do you write lyrics consciously or unconsciously?
“It’s both. I feel like I’m given a little – a basic idea, a few lines. I couldn’t really tell you where that came from, and then a lot of it is sitting down and working out where it’s going. The thing about this office is I don’t sit around waiting for inspiration to hit. It’s about coming in here everyday and working. It’s got nothing to do with how I feel. Feelings are overrated and just get in the way.”
Nick Cave is surprisingly introverted, considerate, thoughtful… alright, I’m not that surprised, but I do come away feeling he gave my questions too much respect. (I don’t often feel that about musicians, believe it: mostly I think them to be asinine grinning monkeys who are so fucking self-satisfied at having learnt how to plug an amplifier into the wall they spend the rest of their lives crowing about it.) This interview is transient, disposable, a blurred snapshot of a man whose hidden depths have been explored so frequently it’d be nice to read a conversation where he just made fart joke after fart joke.
Often, I’ll have moved onto another topic while he’s still considering my previous query. It’s nice to be afforded so much respect by someone you respect so greatly yourself. So Nick Cave doesn’t enjoy the outside world, at least not the world he has no control over. Aren’t we all like that?
Are you surprised about the respect that you’re held in? Does it bother you?
“I’m not surprised. I think I should be held in respect – if only for a kind of stubbornness and being able to hang in there. I respect artists, even if I don’t like them, if I feel that they’ve stuck by their guns.”
Clearly your art has great resonance with a great section of society.
“That I don’t know about so much. I had the misfortune of turning on the TV the other night and seeing *Tonight With Robbie Williams* and he was talking about that you’re only as good as your last song which was a telling thing for him. When someone comes up and says ‘I love your work’, I can’t relate to what they’re saying. The first thought that comes into my head is, ‘It’s all gone, it’s not there, you’re talking about something else entirely’. Those kind of comments make you feel like cringing under the weight of what you’ve already done. I watched a couple of songs from the Robbie Williams thing with my 11-year-old son, and then he said, ‘This is crap’ and I thought, ‘That’s my son!’ [Speaks proudly.] He was right. It was crap.
“It really made me think about where the great singers are going, how we’re losing all these great voices that had some sort of resonance…like Johnny Cash, who hasn’t got many records in him left, and when he goes it’s going to be the terrible loss of just one more singer who aren’t being made any more. There is so much in that voice, so much experience and understanding, knowledge, pain and joy – Sinatra, as well – that Robbie Williams is desperately trying to ape. It’s just not there. This bland, meaningless puke.”
I have this theory that at any given point the amount of authentic art in the world is at a constant but what happens is the media focus varies. At the moment the media is so bad you don’t get exposed to these people.
“The media is too rapid these days, but also rock’n’roll was meant to be disposable, to shine and then die. That was its idea but there has to be some that hang around and tell the full story. There are less and less of these that are allowed to that by the media.”
Time to wrap this up. Let’s finish where we began. With “Babe, I’m On Fire”. Man, what a storming finale! Thanks for your time, Nick. Maybe meet you again in another 24 years…?
On “Nocturama”, you have your centrepiece song at the album’s end…
“That was never intended for the record. It was one of those songs that you and me could sit down now and add another 10 verses to. It’s not a difficult song to do. We played it and we really liked it and did a great mix of it. It just seemed to maintain itself for the length. So it got stuck on. It wasn’t the centrepiece.”
It’s in the tradition of Nick Cave songs that go on for a long time.
“It’s a Jack Russell terrier approach where you get an idea and never let it go. They end, but you’re left with a feeling that they could go on forever.”
Are you ever tempted to turn up to a concert and just do one song for the entire show?
“We haven’t got into that. We did do a concert length version of ‘Proud Mary’ in Japan. That went incredibly well. I like long songs.”
The last time I saw you play live – in Melbourne a couple of years ago – you did a couple of Birthday Party songs on piano. Why?
“We did ‘Wild World’. The Bad Seeds don’t do Birthday Party songs, but this was the little band where we are free to do whatever. They were very different versions of the songs due to the nature of the band.”
Do you miss the physical interaction of The Birthday Party days?
“No. We were just really frustrated. No, I don’t miss that. I’m 45 years old, what am I gonna be doing? Knocking people’s teeth out with a microphone stand? It’s just not dignified. It would be absurd me trying to do that.”